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How The French Learned To Drink Less – And Better

Alcohol consumption has halved over the past 50 years, as the quality of wine has risen.

PARIS - The comedian Coluche, in one of his famous sketches in 1974, expressed a traditional French sentiment when he said, “Wine…it should be mandatory.” But even by the 1970s, wine was no longer a required fixture at dinner tables in France. The decline had actually begun the previous decade, which marked the beginning of a trend that would see alcohol consumption drop nearly 50% between 1960 and 2000, according to the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies.  

In 1957, French adults consumed an average of 5.65 drinks per day. By 2009, that daily number had fallen to 2.71. Broken down by alcohol type, that amounts to 1.55 glasses of wine, just over half a shot of spirits, a half a glass of beer, and 7% of a glass of cider or some other alcoholic drink, according to a study by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addictions.

This latest study took into account people over the age of 15, and was calculated using sales tax records. Today, men in France consume an average of just over four drinks per day, while women drink two, according to the Observatory.

Wine consumption differs according to class

Table wine consumption in France has declined since the 1950s, despite traditionally being considered “a fundamental part of meals and of everyday life, to the same extent as bread,” as sociologist Claude Fischler wrote in the book “1907-2007: A Century of Ardent Red.”

Several societal changes might have contributed to the shift. One explanation could be France’s shrinking number of agricultural and blue-collar workers, who tend to be bigger drinkers than people from other professional categories. White-collar workers “don’t have the same type of lifestyle or the same consumption patterns as blue-collar workers,” said Fischler. “In office environments, people drink coffee or tea, and happily drink water, especially women,” who have made up more and more of the white-collar work force since the 1980s. Advances in packaging may have also influenced what people drink during the workday.  Water was first packaged in plastic in the 1970s, and arrived in smaller plastic bottles by the 1980s, Fischler explains.

Demographics may also be contributing to the drop in daily wine quaffing in France. “The elderly, who are daily consumers (of wine), are disappearing, while younger generations have a different way of drinking wine,” said François Beck, head statistician with the National Institute of Health Education and Prevention. Instead of having a glass of wine with a meal, younger people tend to drink more sporadically and for social reasons, according to a 2010 study of 4,000 people conducted by FranceAgriMer, a governmental agricultural and fishing organization.

Today, many people prefer to buy higher quality French wines, sometimes using them to replace traditional pre-dinner drinks. Simple table wines, which represented 65% of French wine produced in 1979, plummeted to 11% in 2005, in part because of an increase of high-quality, more strictly regulated varieties such as AOC category wines.

“In the change from an everyday product to a high-quality one, wine became high-class,” said Raphael Berger, a researcher from the French Center for the Study and Observation of Life. “Wine is no longer seen as a product of the countryside, a symbol of French gastronomic identity, but is instead seen as a risk.”

That may explain the gradual disappearance of the classic French combo of wine and sausage. The traditional meal is now promoted primarily by the organizers of anti-Islamic events seeking to advance French-only culture, as both food products are forbidden under Islamic dietary laws. The French now consider wine as one of the products to avoid, second only to charcuterie, such as salamis and sausages, according to the French Center for the Study and Observation of Life. 

Public service warnings of the dangers of drinking became more prevalent in the 1980s. A 1988 study by the International Center for the Research of Cancer indicated that alcoholic beverages were carcinogenic, and campaigns against alcohol consumption asked questions like “did you see yourself when you were drunk?” 

This public awareness push has continued, and often involves more specific health-related information. The French government launched a campaign this month to combat excessive alcohol consumption, citing the three-drink maximum for men and two-drink ceiling for women. Go over that limit, the posters warn, and you put your health at risk. 

Read the original article in French

Photo - Neil Conway

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