My home state of Washington has just changed how it distributes alcohol for public sale. As of June 1, 2012, hard spirits can be sold privately right alongside beer and wine, rather than by state-controlled liquor stores. (The transition brought about a little shortage this past weekend, see A Taste of Prohibition as Liquor Stores go Private by Kirk Johnson, The New York Times, May 26, 2012). Most U.S. states already allow for the private sale of alcohol but I have lived in places for most of my life where the state has controlled alcohol sales and access to some extent. (For example, besides Washington, there were state-monopolies of sales of spirits, wine and most beer, in Finland and in Alberta, Canada.) Such strict control over sales has in a sense made state employees the ultimate arbiters of taste, as Johnson notes in the article above; "....their decisions on what to stock dictating what people could order in bars or buy in the stores." Laws can influence our behaviors certainly, but they can also reflect or even influence us to think in certain ways about the subjects in question. Some might argue that attitudes towards alcohol in the U.S. are in fact relatively negative because of the greater state control over access.
While I didn't expect to be drinking wine during the middle of an event organized at a youth tournament, or to see coaches doing so, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by it because the teachers at our boys' public middle school also may have wine at lunch, in the same cantine (cafeteria) as the kids. And, the adult chaperones at the school field trip lunch I participated in last fall all had wine as a matter of course. The wine drinking is all very normal; my spouse suggests that it's because drinking wine is not considered a vice here as it sometimes is in the U.S. So long as alcohol is enjoyed in moderation, no one bats an eye. But, as anyone knows, it sometimes hard to stop after just one glass or one bottle, and even one glass can impair one's judgment and concentration; one wonders how Peter Mayle made it home from the long wine-filled Provençal lunches that he describes in A Year in Provence, or who does the driving for those connoisseurs enjoying themselves at the many wine bars in Aix (lucky for us, we can walk home). Alcohol is in fact the main cause of traffic fatalities in France according to the 2012 Code de la Route (the official French driving rules 2012).
When it comes to driving and alcohol use, or public safety, states do step in, regardless of the prevailing social attitudes towards alcohol or the degree of economic control over alcohol. As elsewhere, French police can stop drivers, test them for alcohol use, and sanction them if their alcohol levels exceed the accepted limits (these limits are in fact lower in France than in Washington state and many other places: the limit is 0.5 g/l blood alcohol content). This relies on the threat of sanctions though as a way to control alcohol use, which isn't always the most effective way to ensure that alcohol and driving don't mix. Perhaps the French state recognizes this, because in just one month, on July 1, 2012, a new alcohol-related law goes into effect here, requiring that all private cars have ethylomètres (breathalyzer kits). In France, the state is mandating that drivers have equipment in their cars that will give them greater access to information about their own alcohol levels and may hopefully encourage more personal responsibility for behavior. In contrast, the Washington state law opens up greater economic and social access to alcohol, giving individuals more freedom to buy and make choices. Both laws touch on alcohol, in different ways, but together they show us that ultimately, social forces external to individuals remain important influences on how we behave and what we think.