Liberté, Egalité, Sobriety

A proposed law in France would change wine from cultural treasure to public health threat
Oct 22, 2013

Imagine France without wine. Bizarre, non? Wine is so associated with French culture, you would think they invented the stuff. (The Greeks and Etruscans taught them. Shhh.) Man has been making wine for thousands of years, but the French made it big business, refining it and marketing it to a thirsty world.

While the image of French wine has arguably never been stronger, especially in young markets like China, the French don't drink nearly as much as they used to. Part of this is healthy: For centuries, the average French farmworker drank a few liters a day because it was safer than the water. But lifestyles have changed in other ways; the French don't linger at long meals with a bottle or two like they used to, and young people don't see wine as a staple.

When wine isn't seen as part of a meal or something with cultural value, then it becomes just another alcoholic beverage.

Maybe it's not so surprising that the French Senate is considering a bill that would impose new restrictions on wine. As our contributor Suzanne Mustacich recently reported from Bordeaux, the proposed law—pushed for by the National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction (ANPAA)—is being touted as a public health measure. Sin taxes on wine would rise, and warning-label language would change, from "the abuse of alcohol is dangerous for health" to "alcohol is dangerous for your health." Suddenly, even moderate drinking is dangerous.

The bill's original language also contained new restrictions on advertising and marketing. French winemakers have long complained about the Evin law, passed in 1991, which bans alcohol ads on TV and restricts how it can be portrayed in print ads. Since 2008, thanks to a lawsuit brought by the ANPAA, editorial content is restricted too. Journalists are limited on how much they can praise a wine--too much is considered free publicity and forbidden. The new provision would have extended the rules to social media, preventing wine promotion on Facebook or Twitter.

How would the government enforce such rules? Well, according to ANPAA director Patrick Elineau, China has proven it can be done—by censoring political dissidents. Vive la liberté.

So far, no politician seems to be jumping to lead the charge for the bill. The French agriculture minister has promised no higher taxes on wine for at least two years. President François Hollande has stayed silent. And the social media language quietly disappeared from the bill as it wound through the Senate. Yet the bill is moving forward. French winemakers have formed their own lobbying group to fight back.

Is it wrong to put more controls on alcohol? Alcoholism is a serious issue, with medical and social costs. Drunk driving claims innocent lives. But will these restrictions have a real impact at reducing those ills? Elineau is quick to say that he and his allies do not want prohibition. But what will happen when the restrictions don't solve alcohol abuse?

What may be most revealing about this campaign is a comment by Dr. Alain Rigaud, ANPAA president and a Reims-based psychiatrist specializing in addiction. He told Wine Spectator that these restrictions would not deter fine-wine drinkers. No, they would target those drinking cheap wine. "They are not drinking for the pleasure of tasting wine. They drink for the alcohol," said Rigaud. Take note, Two-Buck-Chuck fans.

America's "noble experiment" with Prohibition was marked by a similar attitude. The country's temperance movement gained steam in the decades before the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919. During that time, America experienced a huge immigration wave. Southern and Eastern Europeans came, looking for opportunity. In 1910, a majority of Americans lived in small towns. By 1920, most lived in cities, and the country was more ethnically diverse than ever. Congress actually delayed reapportioning its seats for nine years after the 1920 census to keep urban voters from gaining majority rule.

Temperance supporters looked at the newcomers who frequented city saloons and decided they could not handle alcohol. The best thing for both America and for immigrants' well-being was to ban "intoxicating liquors," which meant all alcohol. (In the South, temperance fans felt African Americans couldn't handle a drink either.)

So, a Congress representing a minority of voters in an increasingly diverse country banned the production and sale of alcohol because they thought they knew what was best for those poor, urban, ethnic voters. You know how it worked out.

Even though it was repealed, Prohibition's impact on wine was felt for decades. By making wine a banned substance, something people brewed in their basement, it reduced wine's value to its ability to intoxicate. Wine was just another type of booze, an intoxicating liquor.

If France decides to chip away at wine's status as a pillar of French heritage, how long before it becomes just hooch?

Legal and Legislative Issues France

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