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In France, New Anxiety Over Sky-High Tranquilizer Use

April 19, 1996

PARIS (AP) _ The French are in a funk. And their growing dependence on prescription pick-me-ups is giving the nation a new reason to wring its hands.

France, a new study has found, consumes three to four times as many tranquilizers, antidepressants and sedatives as the United States or any other European country.

It’s the talk of the town, even though no one seems to know exactly why so many French are so stressed out.

``If the situation doesn’t change,″ warned Dr. Edouard Zarifian, author of the government-commissioned study, ``in the near future we’ll see an explosion in the medicalization of our existence.″

Use of such drugs also is rising in the United States, where doctors scribbled 43 million prescriptions for antidepressants such as Prozac last year, according to IMS America, a New Jersey-based drug market research company.

But France, with a population almost four times smaller, filled a nearly identical number of orders. Antidepressants are the top-selling drugs in France after aspirin, and sales rose nearly 8 percent in 1995, according to the National Register of Health Insurance.

A recent poll found that one in four French _ from edgy executives to harried housewives _ is at serious risk of slipping into profound anxiety or acute depression.

Zarifian’s study, commissioned by the Health Ministry, found that 11 percent of the population made at least one purchase of sedatives or anti-stress drugs over a 12-week period. Two out of three buyers were women.

``My doctor gave me these,″ said a suburban Paris mother who gave her name only as Sabine, digging a small blue bottle of pills from the depths of her purse. ``I don’t take them every day, just when life gets crazy and I need my sleep. It’s normal.″

In a country that prides itself on its savoir-vivre, on taking it easy and enjoying life’s pleasures, what’s got the French so rattled?

Psychologists offer a litany of possible answers: pollution, traffic, crime and terrorism _ not to mention France’s chronically high unemployment, now nearly 12 percent.

Three million French are out of work. One study found that the jobless consume 57 percent more antidepressants than the national average. Another survey by the national statistics agency put the number at 82 percent.

Others say the French seem to be spiritually adrift. Many have forsaken their Roman Catholic heritage and claim to be agnostics, if not outright atheists. The suicide rate has soared by 30 percent over as many years, and cult membership is rising.

``The French have a tendency to be melancholy. There’s a lot of depression in families,″ said the Rev. Gene LaMay. ``Many people aren’t sure what they believe anymore.″

France, experts concede, is a pill-popping culture where few people see any sense in gritting their teeth and bearing their pain, Anglo-Saxon style. In fact, the French tend to lose confidence in doctors who don’t prescribe multiple medications.

Tranquilizers are readily available from family physicians, who prescribe up to 80 percent of all psychotropic drugs. But critics contend such doctors are just writing prescriptions because they aren’t trained to handle emotional problems.

``It’s easier to prescribe a sedative or an antidepressant to a distraught patient than it is to design a series of meetings to help him,″ Zarifian said.

Zarifian thinks doctors may prescribe freely because they get a lucrative cut from the pharmaceutical companies, or because they fear a lawsuit if a depressed patient commits suicide.

His report questions the role all this medication plays in accidents at work or on the roads, particularly when mixed with the French fondness for wine and aperitifs.

Alain Ehrenberg, a prominent sociologist, sees a darker danger.

``The risk,″ he told L’Express magazine, ``is creating a world without suffering that will make it harder for people to handle ordinary frustrations without chemical help.″

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