Page last updated at 03:52 GMT, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Binge drinking comes to France

By David Chazan
BBC News, Paris

A Paris bar
Many believed French culture was immune to binge drinking

Long considered a public problem in Britain, binge drinking is now on the rise among young people in France.

Until a few years ago, many French people were convinced that their cafe society and laissez-faire approach to alcohol made them immune to binge drinking.

But times, and drinking habits, have changed. The government recognises the problem and plans to raise the legal age for buying alcohol from 16 to 18 next year.

In some parts of Paris, municipal authorities have already targeted teenage drunkenness by declaring "dry areas" where drinking on the streets is banned at night.

These measures mark a major shift in a society which used to take pride in initiating children into the art of sipping wine with their parents from an early age.

The consensus was that this approach bred a moderate, mature attitude to alcohol.

A glass or two of wine at home over dinner, it used to be thought, protected the French from the need to indulge in a British-style Saturday night booze-up at the pub.

'Bad habit'

Dr Philippe Nuss, Saint Antoine hospital, Paris
Dr Nuss says teenagers no longer drink under parents' supervision
But these days it does not seem to work like that any more.

"Our societies resemble each other more and more, and binge drinking, especially at weekends, has developed in recent years in France," says Patrick Bloche, mayor of the 11th Arrondissement, or district, of Paris.

Mr Bloche has just initiated an extension of the "dry area" in his district.

"We have to fight this bad habit, this growing trend for some Parisians, especially teenagers, to gather outdoors, in public, and drink for hours until they're drunk," he explains.

The health ministry says the number of children under 15 admitted to hospital for drunkenness has increased by 50% in the past four years.

The number of people under 24 treated in hospital in connection with alcohol rose by the same percentage.

Dr Philippe Nuss, who treats people with alcohol-related problems at the St Antoine hospital in Paris, says one factor in the growth of binge drinking is that teenagers are now starting to drink at a younger age.

Even if you raise the legal age limit, teenagers will still find a way
Pierre, post-graduate student

"They start drinking earlier because the family is less cohesive," he says.

"They used to be more strictly controlled by their parents but now they tend to go out and start drinking in groups from the age of about 13 to 16."

In France, 16- and 17-year-olds are now allowed to buy alcohol of any kind in shops, and they can order wine and beer, but not spirits, in cafes and restaurants.

The government has proposed to raise the legal age for all alcohol to 18, but some doubt whether this, or the introduction of dry areas, will be effective.


Paris street at night
Critics say 'dry areas' could just drive teenage drinkers elsewhere
Pierre, a 28-year-old post-graduate student who says he started drinking at 16, says it is the wrong approach.

"If you ban drinking in one area, they'll just go somewhere else," he says. "Even if you raise the legal age limit, teenagers will still find a way."

Pierre says adolescents need to be more aware of the dangers of alcohol, and they need to keep busy.

"When I was 16, every weekend I was drunk with my friends because we didn't have so many things to do and so it was funny to drink," he told me.

Despite changing attitudes to alcohol in France, the government's new, tougher stance has run into some opposition.

Wine-makers in Bordeaux have organised demonstrations to protest against what they see as a threat to their livelihoods at a time when the industry is struggling.

Binge drinking continues to spread in France but the consumption of wine per capita has fallen substantially over the last few decades.

Pierre says many French teenagers prefer hard liquor or beer because they associate wine with their parents' generation.

"I never thought it would be a real problem," says Pierre of his own drinking. "But now, I always need to drink, and that is a problem."

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