Tourists frequenting Parisian cafes often remark that a glass of wine or beer can cost less than a soft drink or a tiny bottle of ordinary, flat "mineral" water.
But the French are now finding out that they are paying a stiff price for cheap alcohol. According to a study just completed at the government's request by a commission headed by Prof. Jean Bernard, overdrinking accounts for over 40, 000 fatalities every year.
According to the report, alcoholism is responsible in France for a third of all highway accidents, a fourth of all accidents at work, a fourth of all suicides, 40 percent of the cases in psychiatric wards in French hospitals, and a high proportion of several fatal diseases.
The report also noted a disturbing rise in drinking among French women and youths. It pointed out that while excessive drinkers are imbibing less wine these days, they are drinking more hard liquor and anise-based aperitifs than ever before.
The French government makes an estimated $2 billion a year in revenue from licensing and taxing alcoholic beverages. But Professor Bernard's committee estimates the expense that the government incurs in hospital care, damage, and loss of productivity resulting from alcoholism adds up to more than $5 billion -- or more than the budgets of France's Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Education combined, and three times the budget of the Ministry of Health.
One problem in trying to fight alcoholism, Professor Bernard points out, is that laws already on the books are not being applied. An example is alcohol tests for drivers. About a year ago. French police were equipped with a small but very effective alcohol breath analyzer. For a brief period they set up roadblocks around Paris and actually checked to see how many drivers were drunk on the road. Almost immediately, an uproar was raised by restaurant owners who claimed that the spot checks were making it impossible to sell wine at dinner. Within a few weeks the spot checks were stopped. Restaurant wine sales are now back where they were before the crackdown began.
Some of Professor Bernard's recommendations would seem absurdly obvious in any country except France. The professor feels that liquor and wine sales, as well as promotional campaigns and free samples, should be banned from France's major highways, auto routes, and service stations.
He also feels that there should be a campaignto provide the public with drinking water. At the moment, it is almost impossible to find a public drinking fountain anywhere in Paris. Even though the city's tap water is perfectly fectly potable, restaurant and cafe owners try to sell their clients mineral water at 75 cents to a $1.50 a bottle. When the government tried to force restaurant owners to provide customers ordinary drinking water free of charge about a year ago, some restaurateurs were so enraged that they put out pitchers of tap water filled with gold fish and live frogs.
An astonishing amount of France's social life is still conducted in cafes, and the obligation to drink in order to stay in the cafe is so heavily ingrained that cafe owners commonly refer to ordering a drink as "renting one's space." Professor Bernard would like to see a nonalcoholic substitute, such as sweet cider, developed and pushed by the government.
A weaker table wine would also help. Much of the ordinary table wine on the French market today has had its alcoholic content artificially increased to about 12 percent. The wine is served not only to adults, but to children down to the age of 9 or 10 years old, and even younger. It starts habits that are hard to break.
Ultimately, ending the problem of alcoholism in France is going to require a changing of national attitudes and habits. The average Frenchman, according to the report, consumes the equivalent of nearly four gallons of 100 percent pure alcohol per year. That represents more than 25 gallons of wine, 10 gallons of beer, and 2.5 gallons of hard liquor and brandy per person.
Since few people conform precisely to the average, it's obvious that some drink much more. The report estimates that France has some 2 million alcoholics and that about one out of 10 people drink too much.
Meanwhile, a public opinion poll commissioned by the daily newspaper Le Quotidien de Paris indicated that only 10 percent of those questioned considered that alcoholism was related to France's tradition of raising fine wines, while 51 percent felt that alcoholism related to every day eating habits.