French curb on alcohol sales as teenagers discover le binge drinking

Teenagers are to be banned from buying alcohol in France, as health advisers dismiss the cherished Gallic belief that children should be initiated in the art of wine-drinking at an early age. With British-style binge drinking gaining ground among French youth, officials say they want to send out a clear message against adolescent consumption. Roselyne Bachelot, the Health Minister, said that she was planning to make it illegal to sell alcohol to the under18s, with legislation likely to be introduced next year.
Her announcement signals a sea change in a society where 16-year-olds have been able to buy wine and beer, although not spirits, in cafés and restaurants and all alcoholic drinks in supermarkets and other shops with an off-licence. It marks a shift in official thinking over the hallowed French tradition of initiating the young in drinking rituals, notably involving wine. The French consensus has been that the first sips should be taken in early adolescence – or before – under parental supervision. This is believed to foster a mature, sensible approach to alcohol far removed from Anglo-Saxon excesses – a couple of glasses of red with lunch and dinner throughout the week, rather than ten pints of lager on a Saturday night.
A senior French health adviser told The Times that his compatriots were deluding themselves. Bernard Basset, deputy managing director of the National Institute for Health Prevention and Education, said that not only did childhood tippling encourage adult alcoholism, but it was also no barrier to binge drinking. He said: “In effect, you are authorising them to drink and suggesting that alcohol consumption is a normal thing.”
Studies showed that those who started drinking under the age of 18 were likely to consume more in later life than those who started afterwards, he added. Mr Basset hopes that the ban on serving alcohol to teenagers in public will encourage a similar move within Gallic families. “What we say is, don’t drink before adulthood.”
Research has debunked the idea that the French were immune to le binge-drinking, as it has become known. The percentage of under18s saying they got drunk regularly rose from 19 to 26 per cent between 2003 and 2006, for instance. According to the Health Ministry, the number of people under 24 treated in hospital in connection with alcohol increased by 50 per cent between 2004 and 2007.
Gilles Demigneux, a public health specialist, said: “The fact that you can get completely smashed in an Anglo-Saxon way, using alcohol as a drug, is something we couldn’t have imagined in France in the 1980s.”
In an attempt to curble binge-drink-ing the Health Ministry released Boire Trop(Too Much to Drink), a hard-hitting advertising campaign this summer, cautioning that excessive alcohol could lead to comas, violence, accidents and sexual abuse.
Critics say the government action could be counter-productive, however. The Federation of General Student Associations, a leading students’ union, said: “There is a tendency to infantilise young people when it would be better to make them take responsibility for themselves.” Olivier Douard, a sociologist at the Laboratory for the Study of and Research into Social Intervention in southern France, said: “Bans are not generally efficient as far as adolescents are concerned. They often lead to transgression.”
The debate has been given added urgency by the death from alcohol poisoning last month of an 18-year-old student in central France who had been out to celebrate passing his end of school exams. In another well-publicised case this week, a father from Brittany sued the supermarket that had sold three bottles of spirits to his 16-year-old daughter, who was taken to hospital after losing consciousness.
Source: The Times August 26, 2008

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