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French Ads Say Drink Up, Docs Fume

Embattled French winemakers, struggling with sagging sales but backed by a powerful alliance of lawmakers, have a message for those who like a tipple: Drink more.

But their bid to loosen restrictions on alcohol advertising has met stiff resistance from doctors' groups — who say French consumers drink quite enough already.

France's vintners have for years suffered a steady erosion of their livelihoods by margin-squeezing supermarket chains, falling demand at home and the growing popularity of Australian and American wines abroad. A government crackdown on drunken driving has also battered domestic sales.

Amid concern for the future of French vineyards and the 300,000 jobs they support, Parliament is to vote on a Senate amendment next month that would clear the way for more wine advertising on billboards, radio, in magazines and other mainstream media.

Health workers are bitterly opposed, and three medical organizations have complained to the prime minister that the proposed changes would fuel alcoholism.

"What this amounts to is that we can't export all the wine we want to, so French people will have to drink it," said Alain Rigaud, president of the National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction.

But winemakers say strong growth in beer and spirit sales shows that multinational producers have been the real beneficiaries of falling wine consumption.

"If you're not out there on the market, somebody else will just take your place with other products that can damage health," said lawmaker Philippe Martin, who heads a cross-party association of politicians from winemaking regions that wants to lift restrictions on wine advertising.

The battle is heating up.

The anti-alcoholism association won a court ruling in January — upheld on appeal June 9 — banning a campaign for Burgundy wines that violated a 1991 law on alcohol advertising.

The law allows ads to contain only factual information about a drink, including its name, manufacturer, alcohol content and origin.

One of the offending Burgundy ads carried an image of a tastefully clad female form glimpsed through a wine glass, along with a message that read: "Chablis possesses subtle mineral tones of invigorating freshness, a reminder that once upon a time, the sea covered its lands."

Wine-friendly senators responded with an amendment loosening the rules to permit a broader array of messages, slogans and images. Parliament's lower house is to vote on the proposal in July, and observers say it has a good chance of adoption.

Those calling for change say current restrictions favor larger foreign wine producers such as U.S. giant E.& J. Gallo Winery or Australia's Jacob's Creek, whose brands are already well known.

France's independent vintners sell their best wine under some 500 low-volume "appellations" and say they can't afford to advertise each one individually. And joint campaigns like the Burgundy series fall afoul of the law because they don't refer to a single product.

"When we see all these other products coming onto the market and that people are drinking less French wine because our producers can't advertise in their own country, there's clearly something wrong," said Martin, a lawmaker from the northern Champagne region.

Martin, who sits on a parliamentary commission preparing recommendations on the French wine industry to be submitted to the government in July, said these may include the reclassification of wine as a foodstuff and the introduction of lessons on winemaking in primary schools.

But Jean Guillaume, who runs the Bouquet Haussmann bistro on one of the capital's main shopping boulevards, remains skeptical about blaming ad restrictions for the decline in wine consumption.

"To say that advertising would turn the industry around is going a bit far," said Guillaume, 67. "It's pretty clear that people are drinking less wine because of the new laws on road safety."

The average French person over age 14 drinks a quarter-bottle of wine a day, down from a half-bottle in 1961, according to the National Wine Office.

But medical groups say that's plenty, especially as French consumers drink two-thirds as much alcohol again in other forms.

Rigaud said drinking habits in France — where many people still order wine at lunch and drink again after work — hide the full extent of the problem. Some 12 percent of France's 60 million people are "at-risk drinkers" without necessarily realizing it, his group estimates.

"Since it's spread throughout the day, the drinking is well tolerated and health problems like chronic liver disease, high blood pressure and cardiovascular illness often only appear five, 10 or 15 years later," Rigaud said.

"Advertising would just legitimize problem drinkers in their problem drinking."

By Laurence Frost