Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The new paradox: why does France discourage wine drinking?

Although my book Age Gets Better with Wine is focused mostly on the science of healthy wine drinking, in the course of researching wine and health the topic of social policy about drinking is unavoidable. Frankly, regulators in the U.S. have made a mess of it over the years, but the French? It’s the French after all who demonstrated to the world that a habit of red wine with meals is not only a key to enjoying life, but to a healthier one too. But in recent years signs have appeared that even as Americans increase their consumption of wine, the French are slipping. And their government is all for it, or so it appeared.
Earlier this year France’s National Cancer Institute, a branch of the health ministry, released a report indicating that any level of consumption of alcohol increases cancer risk, and so abstinence is to be recommended. As one would expect, there was widespread concern that such a policy sent the wrong message. Winegrowers were frankly outraged, and members of the medical establishment began coming forward with a more broad-based view. Even if the findings regarding cancer risk were valid (there is plenty of evidence that it may not be entirely so), an abstinence recommendation fails to take into consideration all of the other benefits of wine, such as with cardiovascular disease (the original French paradox), Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and on and on. The net benefit of healthy wine drinking most certainly outweighs a narrowly defined cancer risk.
Fortunately, it appears that common sense will prevail at the highest levels of French government, at least on this issue. According to a report in Decanter.com, the French High Council for Public Health has now officially disavowed the Cancer Institute’s report. And French president Sarkozy recently announced that new, stricter regulations on advertising alcoholic beverages were to be relaxed. The French may have banned indoor smoking (hard to believe but true), but surely someone must have known that a program of national abstinence just wasn’t going to fly. It may be flattering to see the French emulating America, but trust me, the prohibition thing didn’t really work.

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