Contented lot find happiness can be addictive

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Compared with north Europeans, Britons included, the French tend to look happy with their lot, whether commuting, shopping or just going about their daily business. A survey last year showed more than 90 per cent were "happy to be French".

Recently, though, a malign explanation for all this contentment emerged in the form of a report by a psychiatrist, Edouard Zarifian, who found that the French were far and away the biggest users of anti-depressants, tranquillisers and other "happiness" pills in Europe. The Health Ministry responded by announcing a project to check usage of such drugs and find out why consumption is so high.

According to Dr Zarifian's study, the French take nine times as many tranquillisers as the British, twice as many sleeping pills as the Germans and twice as many painkillers as the Italians.

More than 200,000 people have been on some form of tranquilliser for at least five years, some for more than 10, and are addicted.

Introducing the new project yesterday, the Health Minister, Herve Gaymard, said doctors' prescribing habits would be surveyed on a national basis, as would usage and the adverse effects of such drugs. The project is due to take two months and will be aimed at providing information for patients, as well as for the government.

While the word "cost" has not been mentioned in connection with the survey, this is likely to be one consideration. Spending on prescription drugs in France accounts for a large and growing proportion of health spending and curbing both the prescribing habits of doctors and the appetites of patients by voluntary means is one of the government's priorities.

Ministers hope that by reducing spending on drugs, they can maintain spending on hospital treatment and avoid the dread term "rationing" being applied to health care.

In this, Dr Zarifian could be a useful ally. Interviewed over the weekend, he condemned what he called "collusion" between "experts" and "producers" and accused GPs of handing out tranquillisers on demand.