To your health?

A fight is raging in France between wine makers and doctors about how, or whether, consumers should be persuaded to drink more wine.

Published July 30, 2004 1:58PM (EDT)

An increasingly heated row is raging in France between wine makers and the medical establishment about how, or whether, this once most bibulous of countries should be persuaded to drink more wine.

The crisis facing French wine exports, reeling from an onslaught of New World competitors cheaper, easier to identify, more consistent and often far more drinkable, is well documented.

Less well known is the fact that the French themselves are now drinking a mere 340m litres of wine a year, against 430m litres in 1980, and that the annual consumption of each French adult has plunged from more than 100 litres in the 1960s to 58 litres (102 pints) last year.

A white paper presented yesterday by five MPs from wine-making areas says the decline could be halted by giving wine a special legal status, reclassifying it as a foodstuff with nutritional value, and advertising its beneficial and healthy properties.

Doctors disagree. They point out that alcohol is responsible for about 40,000 premature deaths a year in France, and that one of the government's recently stated public health objectives is to cut alcohol consumption by 20% within five years.

It is an emotive subject in the land of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais and Champagne, where the wine industry not only employs a quarter of a million people but carries enormous cultural and historical weight.

"We're talking two incompatible realities here," said Michel Reynaud, a psychiatrist who specialises in addiction.

"There's the public health reality and the commercial reality of production and marketing. The two will never meet; they can't. They are poles apart."

To the wine industry it is evident that the fall in domestic consumption is due less to lifestyle changes than to decades of government policy aimed at combating alcoholism, the white paper says.

"People have simply jumped to the wrong conclusions. Wine is assimilated with every other toxic product, with no distinction made between excessive and moderate consumption."

Paul-Henri Cugnenc, a surgeon, winemaker and MP, who wrote the most controversial part of the white paper, Wine and Health, said wine in moderation deserved a place in all balanced diets.

The report adds that studies show that two to three glasses of wine a day can substantially reduce the risk of coronary or cardiovascular problems.

Doctors say two-thirds of the deaths in France attributed to alcohol, either directly from fatal illness or indirectly via accidents, murders and suicides, are due to excessive consumption of wine.

They also stress the dangers of the term "moderation".

Dr Reynaud said: "It's a terrible trap. Everyone defines for themselves what moderation is. Almost all excessive drinkers consider themselves within the norm.

"What is needed is more publicity on the dangers of alcohol, not encouragement to drink 'moderately'."

The wine lobby wants the government to exempt wine at least partially from the Loi Evin, a 1991 law which bans alcohol adverts on television and in the cinema, and limits those in the print media to factual information.

The white paper argues that the winemakers must "urgently" be allowed to promote moderate wine consumption. But Emmanuel Leforet of the French Medical Association said: "Relaxing the Loi Evin for wine would be a flagrant breach of stated health policy."

By Jon Henley

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