New Health Warning on Wine Labels Has Many French Seeing Red

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 29, 2007

PARIS -- The label on the bottle of Chateau du Bois de la Garde offers advice for serving (perfect with game, grilled meat or cheese), gives the vintner's credentials (fourth-generation wine grower) and describes the characteristics of the wine (delicate, with red fruit flavors).

Beginning this month, the elegant cream-colored label also includes a mandatory warning -- a silhouette of a pregnant woman holding a glass with the universal red slash mark, meaning "no," across her bulging belly.

In a country where wine labels are accorded a status somewhere between a sacred text and a work of art, the new warning logo has been received about as warmly as a moldy cork in an expensive bottle of Bordeaux.

"It's stupid, in my opinion," said Maryline Dabin, whose small wine shop does a brisk business two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. "If you're pregnant, you already know it's a danger to drink. If you want to drink anyway, this picture is not going to stop you."

The years-long battle to require French vintners to put health warning labels -- including an icon no bigger than the head of a pencil eraser -- on the nation's most famous product is the latest skirmish in a Europe-wide governmental assault on expanding waistlines, high alcohol consumption and the Continental love affair with cigarettes.

The Netherlands' minister for health, welfare and sport has proposed a "fat tax" on unhealthy foods such as candy and potato chips, similar to the taxes imposed on alcohol and tobacco products. The European Commission is asking food manufacturers to accept a code of conduct governing advertising aimed at children.

The mayor of the northwestern Italian town of Varallo recently challenged residents to a group diet with financial incentives: $70 to every man who drops nine pounds and to every woman who sheds seven pounds within a month. If they keep the weight off for five months, the city will hand them another $285.

With the French increasingly losing their reputation for staying healthy despite the national passion for champagne and chocolate, the government has launched health wars on multiple fronts. This year, France began requiring all advertising for junk food, from candy bars to frozen French fries, to include admonishments to consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables, exercise more and stop snacking so much.

Of all the clashes between health advocates and powerful lobbies, none has been more bruising than the French debate over health and wine. The government has been pushing the warning labels for years, concerned that alcohol was the second-largest cause of preventable death in France and responsible for at least 3,000 cases of fetal alcohol syndrome each year.

Parliament approved the warning labels last year and gave wine and liquor bottlers 12 months to comply with the new rule. Producers have the choice of using a written warning or the small logo of the pregnant woman.

At a time when French wines are facing growing competition from new wine-producing countries, and with domestic wine consumption dropping, producers are angry at what they see as yet another attack on their industry.

"This logo has a direct effect on the image of the product," said Delphine Blanc, director of the influential Wine and Society Association. "We put a negative message on the product while it's people's behaviors that have to be regulated, not the products."

"Responsible women know to drink moderately when they are pregnant," said Veronique Mure, 31, a wine producer who is eight months pregnant. "I myself know that a small glass of wine every once in a while won't hurt."

Not according to the French National Health Institute's written version of the label warning against drinking while pregnant: "This recommendation applies to all occasions, whether daily, specific or festive."

But that is a radical shift in thinking for many French, who have traditionally taken a far more lax approach to drinking than Americans, in part because wine is not considered here to be as detrimental to health as hard liquor.

The legal drinking age is 16. In the past, doctors didn't discourage pregnant women from drinking an occasional glass of Burgundy or champagne. Now, partly because of the new government crusade, French doctors are offering more cautious advice.

Even so, consumer and health advocates say the French have not gone far enough in either food or alcohol warnings. The pregnant woman warning logo is so tiny it is difficult to find on some alcohol labels.

"The health messages we have in France go further than what the E.U. imposes, but it's not enough," said Olivier Andrault of the French Consumers' Union, which has assisted the government in designing healthy living campaigns. "We need real political willingness and courage to confront the problem."

Even the government's health Web site offers mixed signals. The site recommends "the equivalent of at least one-half hour of exercise a day, including brisk walking or riding a bicycle." The accompanying illustration shows a man on a bicycle -- its rear basket loaded with a bag of groceries.

Americans won't see the new warning logo on French wines sold in the United States. French exporters said bottles with the logo have been turned back at the U.S. border because liquor imported to the United States requires warnings to be in English.

"We do prohibit the French (or any other country's) government health warning," Arthur H. Resnick, spokesman for the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau said in an e-mail. "We feel that consumers are likely to be confused and possibly misled by a proliferation of government warnings."

Philippe Martin, a French lawmaker and champagne producer who opposed the warning label requirement, says it's not only Americans who might be confounded by the logo.

"The government wanted to ease their conscience with such a logo and please anti-alcohol associations," Martin said. "But in the end, consumers remain confused."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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