France faces battle to stub out old habits

Click to follow
ON SUNDAY the French police will have a new task added to their repertoire: stopping their compatriots smoking in enclosed places.

From 1 November, a draconian anti-smoking law will regulate smoking in factories, offices, cafes, restaurants and other public places from university lecture- halls to railway stations. Instead of no-smoking areas, restaurants and employers will have to provide smoking areas. Those who ignore the new laws face fines of up to 6,000 francs ( pounds 720), while smokers who light up in the wrong place risk a maximum fine of Fr1,300.

Nevertheless, in a country where many flout seat-belt laws, few expect the measures to work. 'I'm going to put a sign up saying this is a smoking restaurant,' says Gerald Hans of the Le Rouge Vif restaurant near Montparnasse, himself a non-smoker. 'Customers who don't like smoke and only drink water don't interest me.'

What Mr Hans proposes is illegal but such initiatives are expected to be so numerous that it is difficult to see how the authorities can make the law stick. 'Like all their other conneries (follies), this will fall by the wayside,' Mr Hans said, expressing a widespread contempt for the unpopular Socialist government. Mr Hans's restaurant is typical of many facing a dilemma. With seating for only 30 in one room, it is difficult to visualise a logical smoking area.

'How are you going to take reservations?' says Rene Lasserre, the owner of one of Paris's most exclusive restaurants which carries his name. 'How can we be expected to ask people on the telephone if any of their party smokes? It goes against all the respect for the customer that I've learnt over the years.'

In the Paris Metro, new wastebins topped with ash-trays have been installed since July with notices exhorting commuters to get into the habit of not smoking. Smoking has long been banned in the trains, and on flights of the domestic airline Air Inter.

Although smoking patterns may have changed over the past 16 years since the first real French campaign against nicotine, the level of smoking has not declined and the habit is still more common than in many other developed nations. Among the 'privileges' that schoolchildren managed to wrest during the student upheavals of 1968 was the right to smoke during breaks. Now, in the yards of the lycees there seems to be scarcely an adolescent without a cigarette.

Many anti-smoking campaigners believe the real problem is a lack of propaganda. There has been nothing as shocking as last year's Health Education Authority report in Britain which said that 12 people died every hour from smoking-related illnesses. French figures put deaths at 54,000 annually, just under half the British figure.

Consumption of cigarettes in France, instead of going down as it did in most places, actually increased from 1970 to 1975 and has remained stable. Some 40 per cent of the over-15s say they smoke, if only occasionally, and 48 per cent of people between 12 and 18 - there is no age requirement for buying tobacco - say they smoke.

The average daily consumption is 6.6 cigarettes, compared with 5.8 in Britain and 10 in Greece, which tops the European table. Norway's consumption is the lowest in Europe, at two cigarettes. The price of tobacco in France is roughly half that of Britain.

Until 20 years ago, it was argued that the French government was opposed to anti-smoking campaigns because it feared financial loss. The state-owned Seita tobacco firm produced the Gitanes and Gauloises which, made with the rough dark tobacco grown in southern France, were the average smoker's fare. Tobacco sales now bring Fr45bn ( pounds 5.4bn) to the state every year but the health authorities reckon that this just about offsets the cost of treating smoking- related illness.

Simone Veil as health minister started the first government campaign against smoking in 1976. She even managed to ban smoking in cabinet meetings, an achievement, given that Jacques Chirac, the prime minister of the time, was a chain-smoker. This was followed by poster and advertising campaigns stressing the need for fresh air rather than the dangers.

Claude Evin, the health minister from 1988 until May 1991 who introduced the new law, clamped down on advertising. From 1 January, tobacco advertising will disappear entirely, wiping out an annual revenue of Fr450m.