Sacre bleurgh: France is sick of alcopops

France, the country that turned boozing into an art form , is leading a European fightback against that garish affront to civilised drinking known as the “pret à boire” – or, in English, the alcopop. Alarmed by the rapid inroads made by pre-mixed alcoholic cocktails in many neighbouring countries, President Jacques Chirac’s centre-right government has pushed through an amendment to its public health bill which will double the tax on all sales from January. The increase will put up the price of the average alcopop to between €3 and €4 (£2-£2.50) – beyond, it is hoped, the reach of the adolescent market whose drinking habits are a cause of mounting concern. The money raised will be spent on government programmes to combat alcoholism.

“The increase is essential for public health because pre-mixed drinks and other ‘alcopops’ are manufactured in order to capture an ever- younger clientele,” the government says in the preamble to the bill.

“What we are trying to do is discourage consumption of alcoholic drinks whose strong alcoholic taste or whose bitterness has been masked by the addition of other products. The sale of these drinks is a pure marketing strategy aimed at young consumers, who are attracted by the sweet taste.”

In France the action is more a pre-emptive strike than a targeted response, as the market for vodka, tequila and whisky-based soda cocktails remains relatively undeveloped. However, with underage drinking beginning to emerge as a major health issue, the government fears France could soon go the same way as many other northern European countries . In Switzerland, sales of alcopops increased twentyfold between 2000 and 2001, and in Germany sales went up from three to 13 million litres in 2002. According to the German Anti-Addiction Centre, 52% of 16 and 17-year-olds regularly consume alcopops. Norway and Austria have also witnessed a big increase in sales over the last few years.

Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French health minister, said: “A preference for these products among adolescents is something we have identified as a new international trend. We can see it across the whole of Europe. Everywhere there is a new type of intoxication — a ‘weekend intoxication’.”

In other words, binge drinking is no longer the sole preserve of the boisterous Brits. In France, the “petit rouge” (red wine) or “demi-pression” (quarter-litre of beer) nursed over several hours of intellectual conversation in the local brasserie is being replaced by a quick fix of something luminous before clubbing till dawn. Recent statistics show that nearly two-thirds of 17-year-old French boys have been drunk at least once, and so have nearly half of French girls. The French bill’s main sponsor, Yves Bur, deputy for Jacques Chirac’s UMP party in the eastern city of Strasbourg, says he was motivated to act after observing the changing drinking habits among young people across the German border. He admits his aim is not just to discourage the consumption of alcopops but to eliminate them completely.

“Today Swiss and German teenagers drink more alcopops than beer,” he said. “We want to kill these new products by making them so expensive that the kids stop buying them. When it comes to the health of our young, we will not allow companies to get away with anything in the name of profit.”

The tax increase is more bad news for a drinks trade which already feels it has been unfairly targeted by a government on a health kick. After seeing its international market share plummet in recent years, the wine industry is now desperately seeking exemption from a ban on alcohol advertising in order to rebuild domestic consumption. The government has also stepped in to an increasingly angry debate over labelling, after the judicial authorities in the northern city of Lille launched an inquiry into the effects of alcohol on pregnant women. This followed a legal suit filed by the pressure group Esper, representing victims of so-called “foetal alcohol syndrome”, which said alcohol producers had failed to provide due warning to prospective mothers.

The group’s lawyer, Benoit Titran, said: “Alcohol producers know the risks it poses for pregnant women.” He added that while French bottles made for export to America have to carry warning labels, no such requirement exists for the domestic market. “Why should American consumers have the right to this information while French consumers do not?” he asked.

The inquiry – the first of its kind in France – could potentially lead to criminal charges of “endangering life” and “misleading marketing”. Health minister Philippe Douste-Blazy has promised that from the autumn all alcohol bottles will carry information about the health risks to pregnant women and their babies.

Hugh Schofield
15 August 2004

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