Sober lesson of French campaign

The British Association for the Advancement of Science
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Campaigners against alcohol abuse cited France, Europe's heaviest drinking nation, as a splendid example to the British during a debate at the festival of science in Birmingham yesterday.

France has steadily reduced its consumption over the past quarter-century and the campaigners claim that this is because its government and politicians have long sought to bring such a decline about, and sent clear messages to the drinking public.

At the same time the trend in Britain has been static or rising.

But, as Guinness PLC's director of strategic affairs, Peter Mitchell, pointed out, the French still drink about a third more than the British, they tax their alcohol far less, there are more alcohol-related road deaths, and more illness. "The clear message from the French ... is that less is better," said Derek Rutherford, a former director of the National Council on Alcoholism. "But our government sends out no such clear message."

By allowing pub-opening hours to be extended, and declaring last December that the safe drinking limit should be raised from 21 to 28 units a week for men (14 to 21 units for women), the Government was guilty at least of ambivalence.

France allows no alcohol advertisements on television, and alcoholic drinks are banned from programmes aimed at children. Warning messages about alcohol's threat to health have to be placed on advertising posters.

Mr Rutherford said there were fewer problems involving drunkenness among young people in France than in Britain, due to a combination of government action and different social attitudes. Dr Peter Anderson, a scientist with the World Wide Fund for Nature, the keynote speaker in the debate on "Alcohol: Friend or Foe", said it was a dependence producing drug which did harm to others as well as to those who used it - in the form of assaults, road injuries, and health costs.

But there was no case for banning alcohol because, taken in moderation, it was known significantly to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in people over 50.