France, where a Gauloise once hung from the bottom lip of every actor or intellectual, plans to move to one of the toughest anti-tobacco regimes in the world.
Garish colours and brand names on cigarette packets will be replaced by health warnings in large type and by prominent photographs of the diseased organs of smokers. Car drivers and passengers will be banned from lighting up in the presence of children under 12.
Although these measures will not take effect until 2016, an uncompromising TV and radio campaign started today, warning that tobacco kills one in two smokers. There will also be a levy on tobacco companies to fund anti-smoking campaigns, and measures to expose the hidden lobbying of the tobacco industry.
The Health Minister, Marisol Touraine, said: “We can no longer accept the fact that the number of deaths caused by tobacco in France is the equivalent of an airliner crashing each day with 200 people on board.”
Ms Touraine’s long-term objective is to abolish smoking over 40 years by discouraging new generations from taking up the habit. Her medium-term objective is to reduce the French smoking rate – one in three adults– to the present British rate of one in five adults, by 2024.
Only one other country, Australia, has outlawed cigarette branding and imposed “neutral” packaging. Similar measures are under consideration in Britain and Ireland.
The big tobacco companies are threatening to sue the French government if it goes ahead with its plan. They say that outlawing distinctive packaging and reducing brand names to small-print, is an assault on “intellectual property” and contrary to European law.
Tobacconists’ organisations are threatening street demonstrations. Some centre-right politicians plan to oppose the “not in front of the children” rule, which would apply to cars and playgrounds. “Police officers would be better employed chasing delinquents than smokers,” said Thierry Lazaro, a centre-right member of parliament.
Anti-tobacco campaigners hailed Ms Touraine’s plans as “revolutionary”. Yves Martinet, of the national committee against smoking, said: “For the first time in France, we have a thorough programme to attack the problem.”
Until the late 1960s, almost two-thirds of French men smoked – but far fewer women. From 1976, a series of increasingly tough measures has been introduced, culminating in a ban on smoking in all public enclosed spaces, including bars and restaurants, from 2006.
The smoking rate among French men is much reduced but the habit has spread among French women. The smoking rate is now gender-equal at just under 30 per cent.
Worryingly for anti-smoking campaigners – and for Ms Touraine’s ambitious plan to get rid of smoking over 40 years – French teenagers are now smoking as much as their parents. Officially, the smoking rate among 17-year-olds is 30 per cent, for both boys and girls. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the rate is, in fact, much higher.
Some anti-smoking campaigners were disappointed that Ms Touraine’s plan includes no further sharp rises in tobacco taxes. The price of a packet of 20 cigarettes in France has doubled in 14 years to €7 (£5.40).
Tobacconists have successfully lobbied for a slowing of price increases which had led to an apparent boom in tobacco smuggling.
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