France to introduce smoking ban in public places next year

The days of cigarette-friendly France are about to go up in smoke.

The prime minister yesterday announced a ban on smoking in public places like offices, schools and public buildings will start in February, while restaurants, dance clubs and some types of bars can delay applying the order until 2008.

"I am convinced the French people are now ready," said Dominique de Villepin, adding France to a growing list of European nations like Ireland, Spain, Britain and Italy to adopt similar measures. "The issue is ripe in our country, given the experiences that we know of elsewhere."

Villepin, speaking in an interview on LCI television, said the ban will be ordered "by decree" in the next few days, a maneuver that allows the government to avert a potentially explosive parliamentary debate ahead of presidential and legislative elections next year.

Many French treasure their right to light up in cafes, bars or restaurants, and have sought to cast the debate as one of freedoms being infringed. Smoking in France isn't as taboo as in many other countries: Even the French presidency's Web site shows a photo of a young President Jacques Chirac with a cigarette in his mouth.

The new rule will affect schools, train stations, airports, offices, public buildings and other enclosed public spaces starting Feb. 1, Villepin said. Restaurants, discos and special cafes where tobacco is sold will be given an "adjustment" period until Jan. 1, 2008.

Smokers who infringe the ban will face fines of ¤75 (US$95), while proprietors of buildings where the violations take place will be subject to twice that, Villepin said. "And we will mobilize a sizable inspection team" to ensure that the law is respected, he added.

Villepin said the state-run health care system will pay some costs of anti-smoking treatments for smokers who want to quit, while state-run hospitals will increase medical consultation services to help people kick the habit.

With the move, the center-right government was taking quick action after a parliamentary panel on Tuesday called for a ban on smoking in enclosed public areas within a year. It had urged a blanket ban - no exemptions - by no later than next September.

The panel also floated an idea for "hermetically sealed" rooms in which smokers can light up, which Villepin said he supports. But in places like cafes or restaurants, no service would be allowed inside such rooms "so the staff will be protected" from smoke, he said.

Bar owners, tobacco vendors, restaurateurs and others in the service and hospitality industries have vowed to fight anti-smoking measures, claiming that bans would hurt their business.

A top French association of hospitality industry business, UMIH, said in a statement Sunday the ban would be "ineffective," adding: "Once again, it is the cafe, restaurant and discotheque sector that is the scapegoat of all society's ills."

Villepin said public health was at stake. An estimated 60,000 people die in France from smoking-related illness each year, with another 5,000 deaths attributed to the effects of second-hand smoke, he said.

"I think everybody understands today how we need to move toward this public health necessity," Villepin said. "What the professionals in these industries want is that the state indicate clearly what it wants - well, that's done."

Villepin had originally sought to take up a smoking ban last spring, but the issue was consigned to the back-burner after huge street protests erupted against - and ultimately doomed - his youth jobs plan. The outcry prompted widespread calls for his resignation.

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