French Combat Youth Binge-Drinking

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Empty beer bottles left in a pile at a camping site in eastern France

In decrying the excessive alcohol consumption of their compatriots, American and British health experts have long pointed to France with special admiration. Here, they said, was a society that masters moderate drinking. In wine-sipping France, the argument went, libation is just a small part of the broad festival of life, not the mind-altering prerequisite for a good time. The French don't wink like the English do at double-fisted drinking; they scorn people who lose control and get drunk in public. It's a neat argument. But it sounds a little Pollyannish now that France itself is grappling with widespread binge-drinking among its youth.

Recent data indicates that while alcohol consumption has generally dropped in France across all age categories over the past decade, it has begun to skyrocket among those minors who say they drink. The most recent official figures show that 12% of people under the age of 18 qualify as regular drinkers, compared with 22% among adults. However, 26% of those frequently consuming French minors admit to having been repeatedly drunk within the previous year, compared with just 5.5% among their adult counterparts. Worse still, fully half of 17-year-olds reported having been drunk at least once during the previous month.

The government has made ambitious plans to tackle the problem head-on. French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot announced that she would scrap France's relatively permissive rules on sales of alcohol to youths. She told the Sunday paper Journal du Dimanche that she would impose a "total prohibition of alcohol sale to minors" by early 2009, and would also ban open bars during celebrations. Open-bar bashes — where participants can drink unlimited quantities of alcohol in exchange for a flat fee — have become, Bachelot says, a "classic element of student parties that encourages binge-drinking." All that underage chugging, Bachelot says, explains the 50% increase in the number of 15-to-24-year-olds hospitalized for excessive alcohol consumption between 2004 and 2007. It's also why alcohol is now the leading factor in deaths among young French people.

That increasingly deadly role of booze among French youths has generated a lot of grim headlines in recent months. In response to a spate of fatal car accidents caused by young drunk drivers, French authorities announced in May that bars, discos and other late-night spots serving alcohol must provide Breathalyzers to clients preparing to take to the road. (It's still unclear who is legally responsible if inebriated drivers take the wheel anyway.)

Her legislation aims to combat the spread of France's variant of the "drinking to get drunk" behavior that has long been a problem in the U.K. and on American college campuses. But it is bound to discourage alcohol consumption among adults, too. Its measures include prohibiting alcohol sales in gas stations; absent, however, is the banning of happy hour in bars and cafés, as health experts have urged.

Binge-drinking has increasingly come under the media spotlight. Multiple cases of teenage students turning up to school blind drunk have been reported, as have incidents of young people suffering temporary alcohol-induced comas. Just last month, an 18-year-old student in central France drank himself to death while celebrating his passage of the baccalaureate exam.

So what's behind this upsurge in binge-drinking among France's youth? Etienne Apaire, president of France's Interministerial Mission Against Drugs and Addiction, says alcohol is now being used both with and like banned substances — cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy — "to attain an immediate state of intoxication." Apaire says a rising number of young people begin abusing booze immediately and never learn how to drink responsibly. "It's part of the globalization of behavior that, as far as drug and alcohol abuse is concerned, at the European Union level is evidenced in all 27 states," he says. In other words, if France hopes to maintain its cultural exception as a country that consumes alcohol responsibly, it will need to work alongside the rest of Europe to find a solution to youth binge-drinking.