In France, is wine a part of national identity and a valuable contributor to the economy, or a danger to public health? A new bill before the French senate claims the latter, calling for higher taxes on alcoholic beverages, stronger health warnings on labels and new restrictions on advertising and marketing.
The proposal has angered French vignerons, and they have organized a lobbying campaign to fight back. “We will not accept being treated like drug dealers when wine is part of the same French gastronomic meal that was classified as an intangible heritage by UNESCO,” said Bernard Farges, president of the Bordeaux wine council (CIVB). “The 500,000 people from the vineyards and wine trade are launching a national campaign to mobilize against this moral and financial pressure.”
The new health bill, championed by the ANPAA (National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction), proposes a "behavior tax," which is allowed on a product considered dangerous for your health and is meant to deter consumption. The health bill also proposes changing the current government warning on labels for wine and other alcoholic beverages from “the abuse of alcohol is dangerous for health” to “alcohol is dangerous for your health. ”
“The consumption of alcohol is not an everyday necessity. There is no consumption without risk,” said ANPAA director Patrick Elineau. “Studies have shown that substantial taxes on a product diminishes consumption.”
Dr. Alain Rigaud, ANPAA president and a Reims-based psychiatrist specializing in addiction, told Wine Spectator that the French were drinking less, and more specifically drinking less cheap wine, but that they still had a higher risk of liver disease than their European neighbors. “This is a public health problem. Wine and spirits are good for exports and jobs, but we don’t see the social cost.”
Rigaud said the behavior tax would not deter grand cru drinkers but would curtail the habits of bottom-shelf drinkers who reach for wine at $4 a bottle or less. “They are not drinking for the pleasure of tasting wine. They drink for the alcohol,” said Rigaud. The proposed tax per bottle would be tied to its alcohol content.
The ANPAA also wants to put an end to the use of social media, citing Twitter, Facebook and blogs, to talk about and promote wine, particularly when it’s associated with parties, success, sports and sex.
Speaking about the difficulty of policing the Internet, Elineau cited the Chinese government’s censorship of dissidents and Australia’s censorship of pornography and pedophilia as examples of ways the French could shut down discussion of wine in mediums such as Twitter and blogs. “When you see what happens with pro-Nazi websites, you see that there are ways of reacting,” said Elineau.
Originally, the health bill included a measure that would have made it illegal to talk about wine and spirits on the Internet. The response from the wine trade was robust. “This is the red line for us. It’s very clear,” said Rafael Delpech, director of public affairs for Moët Hennessy.In early October, a week into a campaign led by Vins et Société, a lobbying group funded by wine industry members, the government backed down on Internet censorship, quietly deleting the clause from the health bill.
Some politicians have expressed opposition. French agricultural minister Stephen Le Foll has publicly stated that he will not allow a new tax on wine in 2013 or 2014. Alain Juppé, Bordeaux’s influential mayor and a former French Prime Minister, expressed his support. “Total support for French winegrowers and their entire economic sector, creators of jobs,” he posted on Twitter.
And that’s what angers French producers. In 2012, the wine and spirits sector earned $10.6 billion in exports, contributed $1.3 billion in tax revenue, attracted 12 million tourists, and employed 500,000 people. It includes 87,000 small businesses—wine estates. “We don’t outsource jobs, we are spread across the whole country, but for how long?” said Farges.
Wine trade members argue that the proposed tax and revised health warnings would seriously damage the consumer’s perception of their product, both at home and abroad, knocking the feet out from under the French paradox. “Wine and spirits are the second biggest export for France,” said Delpech. "If we say that our wine is bad for your health to Americans, Brits and Chinese, you can say ‘au revoir’ to everything we bring to France.” Vin & Société wants to make sure wine has a voice in government. It is pushing the government to hold an official meeting two to three times a year between the wine and spirits industry and the French cabinet to discuss issues.
Members also say the government needs to spend its tax euros more wisely. Out of the $10.6 billion earned from taxes on wine and spirits, only $6.8 million are allotted for the prevention and treatment of addiction. “To change behavior, education is much more effective than taxation,” said Delpech.
“Gastronomy, art de vivre, wine in moderation – this is still the majority of the French, but there is a real minority that wants to make illegal everything that could possibly be harmful," he added.
ANPAA leaders insist they are not Prohibitionists. “We have never been in favor of Prohibition,” said Elineau. “If you give me a bottle of Cheval Blanc, which I’ve never tasted, I’m sure I’d drink it with great pleasure.”