Binge drinking: a French issue?

Alison Eastaway, 14/04/2012

Long touted as the country with the ‘right’ approach to alcohol, it appears not even France is immune to the unbecoming affliction of binge drinking.

For years health experts have admired and advocated the French approach to alcohol. From the age of 15 many French teenagers are given a glass of wine or beer at the family dinner table. The theory is to introduce alcohol at home and normalise its enjoyment in moderation.

Drinking culture and the statistics

Whilst alcohol in Australia “is considered a staple of our national identity”¹, the idea of binge drinking seems ill at ease next to the sense of formality and elegance inherent to French culture.

Alison Eastaway, 12/04/2012

L’apéritif and wine with dinner are integral to the French way of life, yet neither conjures up images of drinking to get drunk. The emphasis is on quality, not quantity.
Alison Eastaway, 12/04/2012

Whilst the statistics are relatively tame in a global context (in Australia “…around 17% of 16 to 17 year olds drink at harmful levels at least two days a week, every week”²), it appears that binge drinking is indeed present, and on the rise in France.

“Half of 17-year-olds in France admitted getting excessively drunk at least once in the last month, while a small minority confessed to binge drinking more than twice a week.”³

The then Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot “has said the number of alcohol-induced hospitalizations for minors under age 15 grew 50 percent between 2004 and 2007.”?

Open bar and happy hours in France

Up until 2009 L’Open Bar was a regular feature of French universities, and involved payment of a flat rate entry fee (often as low as 10€) and in return, unlimited alcohol.

One could be forgiven for thinking these cut price parties, and the excessive drinking that accompanies them, were exclusively the domain of students and not representative of a wider problem in France. However similar soirées could also be found in chic Parisian nightclubs every Thursday night.

Alison Eastaway, 12/04/2012In an attempt to prop up business on what would otherwise be a quiet night, clubs all over the French capital offer what is known as L’After Work. 15€ would buy you entry (20€ on any other night), a full buffet dinner and, le coup de grâce for thirsty young professionals, unlimited wine* for two hours.

These evenings are perhaps encore plus dangereuses as they encourage rapid drinking in a small time frame.

Parisian bars also boast some fairly spectacular happy hour prices. Cocktails may be as cheap as 3€ (but un coca light will still set you back around 6€) further contributing to the drink-to-get-drunk culture.

Alison Eastaway, 12/04/2012

Big push for change and the French solution

In 2008 there was a push from the Inter-ministerial mission for the fight against drugs and drug addiction calling for action from alcohol companies to stop bars and clubs encouraging this type of behaviour. Both happy hours and open bars came under threat.

However the effect an all-out ban would have on revenue streams took precedence over a public health issue and the resulting changes were relatively doux.

Open bars were banned, with the exception of wine shows and festivals, both favourites of French politicians, for which an amendment to legislation was proposed.

*Thursday night After Works in Paris became limited to just five glasses of wine per entry. And as for the happy hours? The only logical solution, of course, was to lower the price of soft drinks.

Et voilà, problem solved.
¹ My name is Australia and I’m an alcoholic’ by Joshua Blake August 2010
² ‘Too much, too young’ by Philip Jenkinson for Young Life Australia 06/01/2011
³ ‘France to ban happy hours in bid to stem ‘le binge drinking” by Henry Samuel 19/05/2008
? ‘France moves to prohibit sale of alcohol to minors’ The Associated Press via Deseret News 10/03/2009
Image credits:
Bastien Vaucher on Flickr
jimgrant on Flickr

3 philippe leroyer on Flickr
4 Mickas on Flickr
Mark Turner on Flickr

About the Contributor

Alison Eastaway

“I am Australian-born but Parisienne at heart. I've spent 8 years in Paris, and can usually be found sipping coffee on café terraces or snuggling up with my cat and a book. Follow me on Twitter, or find me on LinkedIn."

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