According to an article today in the International Herald Tribune, France is considering raising its drinking age from 16 to 18, along with a handful of other pro-prevention policy reforms.
France comes up frequently in alcohol prevention debates as evidence that a lower drinking age can encourage adolescents to learn responsible drinking habits. Apparently, the French themselves aren't so sure. Despite the important role of wine in particular in French culture, hospitalizations for binge drinking have increased 50% among youths 15 and under over the last four years. Of particular concern to French public health advocates are "open bar" nights that are routinely held at French high schools, where students can drink as much as they want for the price of a single ticket. French 16-year-olds are allowed to buy any alcohol in a store, although in bars they're only supposed to be served beer (neither this drink restriction, nor the age restriction, are consistently enforced). The proposed reforms would raise the drinking age to 18 in stores and bars, outlaw open bar nights, prohibit alcohol from being sold in highway rest stops, and impose new limitations on advertising for alcohol on the Internet.
France's current prevention policies are significantly weaker than in most Western countries. A study was published last year that compared alcohol control/prevention policies across 30 economically developed countries. The U.S. ranked right in the middle, and France had the fifth weakest alcohol control laws. The study looked at a 16 different policies, including the legal alcohol purchase age, restrictions on the types of alcoholic beverages sold in retail stores, the price of beer, wine, and liquor, media restrictions, and driving-related restrictions. A score of 100 would have meant that a country had the most restrictive policy possible on each possible metric. Norway had the tightest controls of any country in the study with a score of 67, the U.S. was 15th with a score of 43, France was 26th with a score of 27, and Luxembourg was 30th with a score of 14.
Interestingly, the study also found that for every rise of 10 points in the score, average alcohol consumption went down by one liter per person, per year, indicating that a country can reduce its alcohol consumption by increasing its prevention policies. (Note that this study didn't measure harm caused by alcohol, only the total consumed.)
(Hat tip to Alcohol and Drug History Society for the original IHT article.)