Wine is bad for you, France’s health minister warns. It’s not going down well.

By James McAuley, The Washington Post

French President Emmanuel Macron tastes wine as he visits the 55th International Agriculture Fair at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center in Paris, France, Saturday, Feb. 24.
French President Emmanuel Macron tastes wine as he visits the 55th International Agriculture Fair at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center in Paris, France, Saturday, Feb. 24. AP

In France, wine is not a drink; wine is a way of life.

A crisp sauvignon blanc. A light pinot noir. A mature Bordeaux, deep and dark and wise with age. These are all pillars of national identity at least as much as they are beverages. With the tannins comes a trace of the terroir, and with the terroir comes the taste of tradition.

But wine also poses a significant health risk - or so say the country's health minister, Agnès Buzyn, and a host of doctors who have rallied behind her. They have launched a bitter debate that has shocked a multibillion-dollar industry and divided ranks even within the French government.

For Buzyn and her allies, the point is not to attack wine but to share the veritas about the vino, so to speak. Her goal is to raise public consciousness about a type of alcohol that can have, in excessive quantities, the same deleterious effects as any other.

"The wine industry today claims wine is different from other types of alcohol," she said on French television last month. "In terms of public health, it is exactly the same thing to drink wine, beer, vodka, whiskey. There is zero difference."

President Emmanuel Macron, Buzyn's boss, begs to differ.

France Agriculture Fair (1)
French President Emmanuel Macron tastes wine as he visits the 55th International Agriculture Fair at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center in Paris, France, Saturday, Feb. 24. Stephane Mahe AP

Macron reassured his compatriots that he enjoys wine every day with lunch and dinner and that, yes, there is a difference between wine and other types of booze.

"There is public health scourge when young people get drunk at an accelerated speed with alcohol or beer, but that's not the case with wine," Macron said last month. He added that he did not support any heightened regulations that industry leaders feared Buzyn would pursue.

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Rising to Buzyn's defense, however, nine prominent doctors published an open letter in France's Le Figaro newspaper on Monday, arguing that "what matters in terms of toxicity is the amount of alcohol drunk" and that "French consumption of alcoholic beverages, although declining for half a century, remains one of the strongest in Europe."

They also took Macron to task for disseminating what they see as false information and bad advice, given that they cited alcohol as a leading cause for 50,000 deaths in France.

French people over the age of 15 consume 12.2 liters (3.2 U.S. gallons) of "pure alcohol" per capita each year on average, according to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization. In Germany, the average rate is 11.8 liters (3.1 gallons). In Britain, it's 11.6 liters (3 gallons), and in Sweden, the rate is 9.2 liters (2.4 gallons) - the same as in the United States. On the upper end, the Russian average is 15.1 liters (4 gallons). "Pure alcohol" refers to the portion of a beverage that is 100 percent ethanol.

"A large majority of French people drink wine for pleasure, but we must remember that alcohol is the most dangerous psychotropic," Michel Reynaud, a signatory of the Figaro letter and an addiction expert in France, said Monday on French radio.

But the letter also cites the dark side of France's national drink. "Alcohol, especially wine, is the source of domestic violence, marital violence and street violence, binge drinking, a significant proportion of mental illnesses, suicides and accidental road deaths."

The wine industry was none too pleased.

In another open letter, also published in Le Figaro, several members of France's storied Académie du Vin voiced their displeasure. (The Académie is an institution devoted to "the defense of French wines and the fostering of their understanding, the fight against frauds, deceptions and even ignorance, which could harm the esteem of these wines.")

The title of their letter: "Stop Demonizing Wine, Which is Part of French Civilization!"

Likewise, Joël Forgeau, head of the Vin et Société wine lobby, told the French news magazine L'Express that producers and their business could be impacted by a potential shift in consumer practices. French exports of wine and spirits reached a record 12.9 billion euros ($15.9 billion) in 2017, the Federation of French Wine and Spirits Exporters, a leading trade body, announced in February.

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Producers "feel stigmatized, as they have been engaged in promoting responsible consumption for several years now," Forgeau said.

But despite the public outcry, Buzyn's line has been firm. " 'In moderation' shouldn't be used anymore," she said in her appearance on French television. "The real message we should be sending today is that alcohol is bad for your health."

At the same time, the government has been trying to douse the flames where it can.

After conceding the potential dangers of alcohol consumption, Édouard Philippe, Macron's prime minister, put this question to the French Parliament: "Do you honestly think this government will take measures against winemakers and wine culture?"