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Row in France as government reluctant to back dry January

Row in France as government reluctant to back dry January

Dry January is at the centre of a political row in France after more than 45 professors of addiction studies signed a letter urging the state to promote a month of abstinence from alcohol.

A group of senior academics and doctors working on addiction have written to the French health minister to say that not enough is being done by the state to campaign on alcohol risks, and the government should support an alcohol-free month at the start of the year.

Dry January, which started in the UK 10 years ago, was introduced to France in 2020 as the “défi de janvier”, or January challenge, promoted by health charities. It has grown in popularity with more than 60% of French people wanting to try it in 2024, according to a BVA poll for the Association Addictions France, but the French state health body has not promoted dry January and politicians are reluctant to get onboard.

The senior academics and doctors said in their unprecedented letter that state support for the initiative would be an opportunity and a “strong sign” that would “calm” the debate on alcohol consumption in France.

“It appears that trust in the government to run a coherent and resolute political [approach to alcohol] has seriously deteriorated,” the letter said, adding it was “more than a shame” that the government continued to keep its distance from the French version of dry January.

After the US, France is the second biggest consumer of wine in the world, and French politicians listen closely to the country’s wine industry, which employs 500,000 people.

Emmanuel Macron is seen within France as the most pro-alcohol president since the second world war, saying he drinks wine every day, at lunchtime and in the evening, and that a meal without wine was “a bit sad”. He was filmed this year downing a bottle of beer in 17 seconds in a rugby changing-room.

The powerful French alcohol lobby argues that France is a nation that traditionally drinks in moderation, so the UK’s dry January month of abstinence is out of step with its culture and better suited to northern European binge-drinkers.

Yet health campaigners point to figures such as recent polling by the French League against Cancer, which found that 70% of French parents saw no problem in giving their teenagers alcohol during the festive season.

Olivier Cottencin, the head of the national body of university professors in addiction studies, who coordinated the letter, said it was surprising that the French government backed a tobacco-free month every November, but not an alcohol-free month.

He said scientific research on dry January in the UK had shown an immediate positive impact on health, including on sleep and blood pressure, and a reduced level of alcohol consumption for many months until the summer. “We want to mobilise the government because in France we know it’s important that the state gets involved with prevention.”

Amine Benyamina, the head of the psychiatry and addiction service at Paul-Brousse hospital and president of the French Federation of the study of Addiction, said: “We don’t want a country without alcohol, we want a country that is very strong on spelling out the risks. The risks linked to alcohol, as the scientific literature incites us to provide, are not given in France.”

He said there was reluctance from French politicians, adding: “It’s not simply the government, it’s the whole political class in all its diversity, which in unison does not want to tackle the problem of alcohol in France.”

Benyamina cited state figures that an estimated 42,000 deaths a year in France were linked to alcohol.

A government-backed campaign on alcohol in January 2023 that showed people clinking their glasses and saying “santé” (health), followed by the question: “Isn’t it a bit absurd to wish someone good health with alcohol?” was met with objections from alcohol producers.

The wine industry lobby wrote to Macron complaining about the campaign, saying it did not depict excess drinking but showed friendly, family moments and gave no guidelines on safe consumption. The advert was not run again.

Anti-addiction campaigners have said the government is too quick to act on alcohol industry views, and addiction charities also said the government had shied away from hard-hitting alcohol campaigns around the Rugby World Cup.

Bernard Basset, the head of the addiction charity Association Addictions France, said French politicians were out of step with the public. “Dry January is seen in an increasingly positive way … The political class has not understood that public opinion wants change.”

Aurélien Rousseau, who was health minister before resigning just before Christmas over an immigration law, told BFMTV that he personally be sober in January and had started already in December.

But asked whether the state would back dry January, he said: “I’m very wary of … the government launching a campaign telling people how to live for a month.” He said the government would campaign on alcohol in 2024, targeting young people and pregnant women.

Krystel Lepresle, of Vin et Société, which represents the French wine industry, said it did not seem necessary for the state to actively back an alcohol-free month in France, because 90% of French people drank under the recommended limit of 10 glasses a week, and alcohol consumption had dropped by 60% in 60 years.

She said French people managed “to reconcile the pleasure of consumption with moderation”.

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