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Ad battle in France pits doctors, vintners

PARIS -- 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 enough.

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 has also hurtdomestic sales.

Amid concern for the future of French vineyards and the 300,000 jobs they support, parliament is to vote on a Senate amendment 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 Dr. 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 battle is heating up.

The antialcoholism association won a court ruling in January, upheld on appeal June 9, banning a campaign for Burgundy wines that violated a 1991 law on alcohol advertising.

The law allows ads to contain only factual information about a drink, including its name, manufacturer, alcohol content, and origin.

One of the offending Burgundy ads carried an image of a tastefully clad female form glimpsed through a wine glass, along with a message that read: "Chablis possesses subtle mineral tones of invigorating freshness, a reminder that once upon a time, the sea covered its lands."

Wine-friendly senators responded with an amendment loosening the rules to permit a broader array of messages, slogans, and images. Parliament's lower house is to vote on the proposal in July, and observers say it has a good chance of adoption.

Those calling for change say current restrictions favor larger foreign wine producers, such as US giant E.& J. Gallo Winery or Australia's Jacob's Creek, whose brands are well-known.

France's independent vintners sell their best wine under some 500 low-volume "appellations" and say they can't afford to advertise each one individually.

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