French inquiry into alcohol-harmed babies

In what is believed to be the first case of its kind in Europe, a French public prosecutor has started a criminal investigation into the damage caused by alcohol to unborn babies.

The public prosecutor's office in Lille in northern France has started a preliminary inquiry, accusing "X", or persons unknown, of "placing the lives of others in danger, accidental wounding and fraudulent marketing".

The potential defendants, if the investigation progresses, are the French alcohol industry and the French government for failing to warn women of the dangers of drinking, even moderately, while pregnant.

The case arises from a campaign in Roubaix, a depressed industrial town in northern France, which has a serious problem with alcohol-damaged babies and even "second-generation" damage: mothers who were mentally damaged while still in the womb, who go on to drink heavily when pregnant themselves.

The campaign has been led partly by a father and son team, Maurice and Benoît Titran, who are, respectively, a leading paediatrician in Roubaix and a lawyer. Benoît Titran, lawyer for the Esper pressure group, made a formal complaint to the public prosecutor in the spring.

The case arises just as the French alcohol industry - and especially struggling producers of medium and low-quality wine - are putting pressure on the government to relax the existing rules restricting the advertising and marketing of alcoholic drinks.

The Esper group and other campaigners want the government to force all drinks companies to label their bottles with a warning about drinking and pregnancy.

"The alcohol producers know what the dangers are," Benoît Titran said. "We are not necessarily trying to force litigation, on the American model.We just want to force the state to accept its responsibilities."

"Many mothers have come forward to bear witness to the problems they have endured with their children, from physical malformations to mental and nervous deficiencies, even after drinking only moderately while pregnant."

More than 6,000 babies born in France each year are believed to suffer from mental or physical damage from "passive consumption" of alcohol in the womb. The problem is especially acute in the depressed, former industrial areas in the north and east of France and in some "overseas" départements and territories in the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian Ocean.

The Lille public prosecutor's office has already questioned officials of one of the large French supermarket chains, Auchan. They plan to interview representatives of wine, beers and spirits producers and the French health ministry.

A serious slump in sales of French table wines and moderate quality "appellation" wines has already produced a backlash against existing laws restricting the advertising of wine and other alcoholic drinks. Any attempt by the government to associate wine-drinking with medical problems will be fiercely resisted by the French wine industry.

Dr Benoît Fleury, from Bordeaux, a specialist in alcoholic problems, said yesterday: "There is in France a state of denial among wine-producers, members of parliament, some journalists and the whole of the drinks lobby about this special danger of alcohol consumption by pregnant women.

"In the present circumstances [the wine sales crisis], any attempt to warn young women officially of the dangers will be seen by the wine-growers as another blow to their survival," Dr Fleury said.

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