Drug use, smoking and alcohol: What is happening in France?
A recent survey on drug use, alcohol and smoking run in March of 2011 by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addiction revealed very interesting results regarding the addictions of French young people. The French Observatory interviewed 32.000 17 year olds, asking them about their levels of drug use, including levels of alcohol and smoke. The most important results of the survey were the following:
– Alcohol, cigarette and cannabis were by far the substances mostly preferred by the 17 year olds in 2011.
– Between 2008 and 2011, the use of cannabis has been significantly reducing, as opposed to the use of alcohol and cigarettes, which has been following an increasing pattern. More particularly, while the regular use of alcohol among the 17 year old young French reached the figure of 10,5% in 2011 compared to the figure of 8,9% in 2008, the use of cannabis decreased from 42,2% in 2008 to 41,5% in 2011.
– The use of cigarettes raised significantly from 28,9 % in 2008 to 31,5% in 2011 .
-The experimentation of various legal (alcohol and cigarette) and illegal substances (cannabis, cocaine, heroine, ecstasy) remained generally stable between 2008 and 2011.
-Overall, the boys tended to use larger amounts of substances than the girls; however, the girls liked to experiment with cigarettes more than the boys.
-Cocaine was the drug that boys seemed to experiment with, rather than the girls.
-In 2011, 68,4% of the 17 year old young population had smoked at least one cigarette in their life and 91% had already tried alcohol.
These findings sparked a significant public interest and gave rise to a lively debate in the media, as to what results and consequences they can have for the future of young people in France, what possible changes can be initiated in the public policy and what they reveal about French culture.
Three main areas of discussion were dominant in the media after this survey: Firstly, the excessive use of alcohol by French people and what this reveals about French culture, secondly the big debate on whether the use of cannabis and other drugs should be legalized or not, and lastly, some remarks about the use of cigarettes and its implications for public health.
It is clear that French people, including young people, are massively addicted to alcohol. As the survey revealed, the use of alcohol exceeded the use of any other addictive substance. Alcoholism has become a very common phenomenon between adolescents, especially manifest in their social gatherings, parties and outings. Drinking alcohol in France is in the heart of experiencing joy, youth and unconcern. It is a necessity for having fun. Parents are very worried about this tendency which seems to follow increasing patterns every year. According to the French news website Atlantico, -based on a poll produced by ‘Opinion Way’-young people in France tend to use heavy alcohol like vodka, pure whisky, mixed alcohol, while starting to avoid lighter drinks, such as beer or wine. And as the French Observatory Survey showed, insobriety is more and more widespread among adolescents. This tendency has very alarming implications for the health of young people, since it can lead thousands of them to hospitalization, after nights of heavy drinking. This is just one consequence among many others: Alcohol intoxication causes numerous accidents in the street and puts in danger the lives of other people who happen to be in the vehicles with their friends and who possibly do not drink at all. Also, another consequence of the excessive use of alcohol, which apparently is not so well known in the public, is the sexual aggression and assault under the effect of alcohol. Girls become particularly vulnerable and defenseless and boys can be sexually uncontrolled and aggressive, as the analyses of the polls reveal. Of course, we should not forget that the personality of the individual varies, and that the same quantity of alcohol consumed can generate different outcomes in different persons.
The debate on the legalization of cannabis and possibly of other drugs in France, following the French Observatory survey, was closely associated with the consumption of alcohol. In general terms, the opinions seemed to be divided between those who support legalization, usually arguing that alcohol, which is legal, harms young people much more than cannabis, since it causes all the harms stated above and between those who tend to think that cannabis should not be legalized, as it causes health problems even in a minor degree. In a French debate online platform called ‘Mome.net’, French people from all walks of life are given the chance to write freely about their opinions. The issue of alcohol and drugs received massive responses, including positive and negative with regard to the legalization of cannabis. What was interesting between all those responses, was that those people who were in favor of legalization, kept emphasizing that alcohol provably can be the cause of much more serious harms than cannabis and that therefore, public policy should focus more on the issue of alcohol addiction, instead of condemning cannabis, which should cease to remain illegal. They were also in favor of the view that the legalization of cannabis would protect the potential users from the dangerous and uncontrolled black market. One remarkable comment in this forum was: ‘Legalize cannabis! Criminalize alcohol!”. This debate seemed to match perfectly with the findings of the French Observatory survey, affirmed the fact that alcohol is the most serious and alarming source of addiction and additionally affirmed the observation that french people are aware of and upset about the increasing use of alcohol, despite the fact that the majority of the French population enjoy drinking.
What was also worth noticing, was that many people who expressed their opinions on substance use, referred to the impact of the habit of drinking in French people’s lives. Apparently, alcohol significantly belongs to French culture.
Alcohol is everywhere: in the dinners between friends, in the French celebrations, in the good and bad moments, and is totally attached to the French way of life. Many people in the forum, talk about the pleasure they get out of drinking, a pleasure which is inevitable, desirable and part of life. Some others stressed that, because alcohol is part of the French traditions and culture, it is impossible and unlikely that it will ever be banned or absent from their life.
Finally, as far as smoking was concerned, what the survey of the French Observatory revealed was that it is important to rethink the smoking laws, and focus on the prevention of smoking through special strategies and information for young people. What was particularly strange was that while the cigarette prices have been deliberately increasing the last years, as part of the government’s strategy to reduce their consumption by the young population, the use of cigarettes increased in 2011, instead of the predictable result of decrease. Nora Berra, the French Secretary of State for Health under the Minister of Labour, Employment and Health, in one of her interviews, alarms the public that smoking is the first cause of mortality in France. When asked to rank the degree of dangerousness between the addictive substances, she puts the smoke first, the alcohol second and the other drugs third in the ranking scale.
Different types of addiction are an inevitable fact of all the modern societies and ways of life. Almost everyone is addicted to habits, substances, activities, even to other people. I think that we have to accept that and live with that, as long as it does not threat our health and survival. Addiction is part of the human functioning up to a degree, and so long as it doesn’t impede human flourishing, we should not take a radical negative stance towards it. We all have, as individuals and as political agents a duty to do our best to improve people’s lives and fight for happiness, and this duty might require sacrifices, strict laws, prohibitions but might equally require tolerance, openness and understanding. In those lines, maybe French people’s drinking, smoking or soft drug habits are not so bad, after all. It is the right of everyone to be against particular substances, but why does not anyone talk about the destructive addictions of watching TV, shopping uncontrollably or copying the models which mainstream culture promotes? Those might not affect directly people’s health, but indirectly affect their brains, their thought and their behavior, which can lead them to extremely dangerous acts and reactions.
*article published on talkingdrugs.org: http://talkingdrugs.org/drug-use-smoking-and-alcohol-what-is-happening-in-france