France does have a drink problem, survey reveals

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France regards itself as a nation which knows how to take its drink, unlike, say, the Scandinavians or the British. But a hard-hitting report presented to the government suggested the entire country is in a state of alcoholic denial.

One in 10 French people has a drink problem, the report says. Every day, five people die of alcohol-linked accidents or diseases in France.

The semi-official study undermines an argument used by the Blair government for extending Britain's pub opening hours. Spreading drinking over a longer period, as France does, does not necessarily reduce alcohol-related social ills.

Addiction to alcohol in France is partly rooted in politics, says Hervé Chabalier, the author of the report, who is a television journalist and recovering alcoholic. The influence of wine-growers, and the wider drinks industry, on the government means the dangers of drink have never been properly addressed, M. Chabalier said. The one exception - a law passed in 1991 restricting drink advertising - was not fully applied and is now being dismantled, he said.

M. Chabalier, author of a best-selling book last year on his near-destruction by drink, calls for all bottles of wine and other drinks to have a health-warning label. He also wants a national campaign to warn young people - and especially young women - of the dangers of alcohol.

"Culturally, alcohol has always been considered here as something convivial," M. Chabalier said. "We must stop treating it like an everyday consumer need, like baguettes. It must be de-normalised."

The chances of M. Chabalier being heeded are slender to non-existent. The French wine industry, reeling from increased competition abroad and falling consumption at home, rejected the report yesterday as "alarmist" and unpatriotic.

France does not have a tradition of binge-drinking or obvious public drunkenness, as in Britain. It has a less visible problem of constant, steady consumption of alcohol, often starting early in the day. This tends to make the problem less visible but not necessarily less acute.

Although wine consumption has fallen dramatically, young people especially have switched to beer, spirits and alcopops. More than five million people in France - more than one in 10 adults - have an "abusive" relationship with drink, according to the report. About two million people should be considered addicted to alcohol.

Drink, and especially drink-driving, is the largest single cause of death among young people in France. Up to 3,000 babies a year are born physically or mentally handicapped because their mothers drank heavily while they were in the womb. Drink-related illnesses kill 23,000 French people a year. When accidents are included, the drink-connected death rate rises to 45,000.

M. Chabalier also complains that the French medical profession and health industry, which are influenced by the prevailing national attitude, fail to regard alcoholism as a disease and therefore provide few resources for drink-related illnesses. "You have to wait three months for an appointment in one of the few alcohol clinics," he said. "That gives you more than enough time to get back on the booze."