The French have long had a reputation for drinking in moderation. However, a new report states that the reputation is misleading and attributes 49,000 premature deaths per year – or 134 every day – to alcohol-related diseases.
The report, published on Monday (4 March) in the European Journal of Public Health, is based on data from 2009.
Some 36,500 French men die each year from alcohol-related illnesses, making for around 13% of the overall male mortality rate, the report found.
The findings came as a surprise to the industry.
Carole Brigaudeau, director of communications at SpiritsEurope, which represents producers of spirits drinks at the EU level, questioned the quality of the study and the estimates for the alcohol-attributable mortality in France. These had to be assessed thoroughly before drawing any conclusions, she said.
SpiritsEurope was surprised by the huge difference in estimate between the study (49,000 deaths) and the 28,000 deaths from previous papers.
"We need more time to study this single article and compare it with the finding of various meta-analysis of more than 30 individual articles," Brigaudeau told EURACTIV.
"We are also surprised by the conclusion that alcohol consumption is detrimental even at very low dose. This appears to be in contradiction with the currently available evidence-base."
The French 'simply drinking too much'
The new study, carried out by the Service for Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Paris-based Institue Gustave Roussy, also found that three times as many French men died as a result of an alcohol-related health problem than women.
This is in contrast with the number of female alcohol-related deaths which stand at 12,500, or 5% of female deaths in France.
The survey also revealed was that 40% of those deaths were people under the age of 65.
One of the authors of the new report, Catherine Hill, summed up the findings simply by saying "the French drink too much."
She told the news agency AFP that alcohol is an important cause of premature mortality as it is responsible for 22% of deaths between 15 and 34 years of age, 18% of deaths between 35 and 64 and 7% of deaths of over-65s.
"The causes of death attributable to alcohol are above all cancers (15,000) and cardio-vascular diseases [12,000]," Hill explained.
The remaining deaths included digestive illnesses such as cirrhosis, accidents, suicides and mental illnesses.
Although the statistics may seem worrying, French radio RTL reported that alcohol consumption has decreased in France in the last 50 years.
In 1994, the average Frenchman consumed 3.3 units of alcohol per day, three units in 2002 and 2003 and 2.7 in 2009.
Brigaudeau stated that the vast majority of all cause mortality studies support the view that moderate alcohol consumption (20g of ethanol, or two drinks, for women and 30g for men per day) does not increase mortality risk.
However, when compared to the rest of Europe, it would appear France is still behind. In Switzerland 5% of male deaths were alcohol-related and in Denmark 1%.
Brigaudeau said that per-capita alcohol consumption per se is not the most appropriate harm indicator.
"More important is to consider patterns of consumption such as chronic, long term, heavy consumption, binge drinking, drink driving, etc, patterns that may lead to acute and chronic alcohol-related diseases," SpiritsEurope's communications director said.