France tussling about tippling

Doctors' groups protest loosening restrictions on alcohol advertising

A passer-by looks at an advertisement for wine containers Monday in Paris. French winemakers want an end to restrictions on wine advertising to combat declining sales.

? 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 also has 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 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.