Children and alcohol: even France is no longer immune
While Britain tries a new approach to curb underage drinking, teenage binges are on the rise across the Channel
If there is one country that might be expected to greet the chief medical officer’s words on not mixing children and alcohol with a loud cough and splutter, it is France.
In the land of rolling vineyards and champagne countryside, the tradition of bringing children up to be familiar and – so goes the logic – restrained with alcohol remains strong.
Parents often give their teenagers a glass of wine – watered down or otherwise – to wash down their meal, and it is this culture of early introduction that historically has been credited with keeping French adolescents sober while their English equivalents make spectacles of themselves in the gutter.
In 2006 a parliamentary report even advocated wine appreciation classes for the very youngest in society – because “learning about healthy living starts from childhood and primary school”.
There are signs, however, that even France is starting to change its ways. Drink-driving, a practice tolerated long after it had become taboo in Britain and the US, is now frowned upon, if not fully stamped out. And in 2006 government guidelines for drinking during pregnancy were rewritten in favour of abstinence, citing research linking moderate alcohol intake with potential brain damage.
Then last summer the health minister, Roselyne Bachelot, announced plans to ban the sale of alcohol to under-18s, bringing to an end the era in which French 16-year-olds could wow their English exchange partners with easy access to wine and beer.
The reason for the change in attitude? The arrival of the kind of binge drinking to which France had long claimed immunity. According to government figures, the number of under-18s claiming to get drunk regularly increased from 19% to 26% between 2003 and 2006.
Among the scientific community there is a growing consensus that the “softly, softly” approach of moderate childhood consumption is no longer the answer. The National Institute for Health Prevention and Education warned in a campaign last year that “premature introduction to alcohol, and excessive consumption during adolescence, can add to the risk of problematic [drinking] later on”.
But, while Britain’s Sir Liam Donaldson may find support among his fellow doctors, it could be some time before a zero-tolerance approach is embraced by the average French family.
And the country’s alcohol industry will waste no time in dismissing it as disproportionate. “It’s like anything – sugar, fat, work: it comes down to the way in which they are consumed,” said Florence Corre, a spokeswoman for the French Federation of Independent Winegrowers. “Thirteen or 14 is still a bit young but at 15, as long as it’s in a controlled environment with their parents, I’d say it was fine. Never to excess, though.”