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Liberté, Egalité, Sobriety

A proposed law in France would change wine from cultural treasure to public health threat

Posted: Oct 22, 2013 10:30am ET

By Mitch Frank

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?

Peter Hellman
New York, NY, USA —  October 22, 2013 11:57am ET
Hard to believe this could be happening in a nation which has been refining and defining what wine can and should be for at least ten centuries. When, as projected, "les climats" of Burgundy are nominated as a U.N. World Heritage Site next year, will France declare that same wine as injurious to your health?
Scary and depressing.
Quinn Bottorff
Edmonton, AB —  October 22, 2013 10:55pm ET
Another sign of the decline of Western Civilization....
Peter C Hunt
United States —  October 23, 2013 7:16pm ET
This has nothing to do with prohibiting wine. It is all about the extreme left wing wanting the government control everything. In France, if you can as the government can determine who can drink and who can’t then everything else is on the table for government control.
Steve Lasater
Grand Rapids, Michigan —  October 24, 2013 8:22am ET
How reassuring that social media wine promotion will also be proscribed; if I were tempted to start drinking abusively, Facebook and Twitter are certainly where I would look first for confirmation of my decision!

Furthermore, the passage of this bill could also be expected to diminish the NON-ADDICTIVE consumption of wine and thus reduce the proven health benefits of moderate wine consumption. Such confusion on the part of French legislators gives new meaning to the term "the French Paradox"!
William Kandler
Lansing, Michigan, USA —  October 24, 2013 2:08pm ET
Well written article. It is helpful to put these kinds of proposals into historical context. Most folks have no knowledge of how prohibition came to be, how it worked and the lasting impact.
Candace Hobbs
Oak Island, NC  —  October 24, 2013 8:05pm ET
A super interesting article that has inspired me to do some research regarding the existing government policies in France and how this will impact what I would believe to be a huge chunk of their economy in the global market...to their favor. Limiting access of production to domestic consumers will keep their prices high..they hope..to an already government controlled industry. This is nothing new...they've been doing it for years..it's just a new angle.
Chris Yaldezian
San Ramon, CA —  October 24, 2013 8:25pm ET
Let us hope that the French will be more enlightened than many of us here in the US.
Kari Poikolainen
Helsinki, Finland —  October 25, 2013 8:55am ET
Every bottle should have a warning label: Moderate intake may improve your health and increase your life span.
Gil Mccann
South Burlington, Vermont, USA —  October 28, 2013 12:09am ET
I do not find the arguments for this legislation to be convincing - what is the evidence? It is certainly "classist" as it would raise the price of wine. If one wants to stop abuse of alcohol - of whatever type - then support education about the negative and POSITIVE effects of drinking.

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