French tobacco companies are fuming

Fumer ou ne pas fumer? C’est un no brainer!

Smoking was first restricted in France in 1976 when tobacco advertising was banned and tobacco companies required to print dire warnings on their cigarette packages. Further restrictions were introduced in 1991 with measures aimed at restricting tobacco consumption.

In 2007 smoking in enclosed public places such as offices, schools, government buildings and restaurants was strictly prohibited. The law can be enforced with a minimum fine of €500. And in October 2015 a fine of €68 came into force for discarding fag ends in public.

All of which suggests that France is on the side of the angels when it comes to tackling tobacco addiction, even though some 47 billion cigarettes are still lit up in France each year – although far fewer than the 84 billion smoked in 2001. Even so, according to Gérard Audereau, president of the anti-smoking group “Droits des Non Fumeurs” (Rights of non-smokers), “France is a country that places the most restrictions on smokers, but does the least to enforce them.”

GauloisesNow, the French government is considering banning certain tobacco brands because they project “coolness”. Among those threatened are Gauloises, long-time symbol of French patriotism and culture. During the First World War the brand was associated with the cigarette-smoking poilu (infantryman) and with resistance fighters under the Vichy Regime during the Second World War. It later figured in countless French films of the 1950s.

Smoking Gauloises was promoted as a contribution to the national good: in a cynical manoeuvre a portion of sale profits was paid to the Régie Française des Tabacs, a semi-governmental entity charged with controlling the use of tobacco, especially by minors. It gave some of the profits to social causes. Designers of the traditional Gauloise packet reinforced its aura of national identity by using a peculiarly French shade of blue.

The new French ban is the outcome of a public health law – based on an EU directive – stipulating that tobacco products “must not include any element that contributes to the promotion of tobacco or gives an erroneous impression of certain characteristics”, i.e. that it is “cool” to smoke.

GitanesCigarette companies have written to the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, asking for the chance to appeal against any ban before the new health code article, currently being considered by the Council of State, is approved and made public.

Smoking is blamed for approximately 78,000 deaths a year in France, which according to the World Health Organisation has some 13 million smokers – including about one-third of teenagers and a quarter of adults. Existing EU laws require tobacco firms to cover 65% of their packaging with health warnings.

In The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010), Siddhartha Mukherjee devotes a whole chapter to the tobacco industry’s evil machinations aimed at blurring the link between smoking and cancer, denying culpability and, in the face of unequivocal scientific evidence, cynically shifting tobacco sales to the global South. And yet, after a period of tough anti-smoking campaigns recognizing the appalling cost of smoking to society and public healthcare, Mukherjee sadly observes:

“Tobacco consumption continues relatively unfettered even today. Smoking rates, having plateaued for decades, have begun to rise again in certain demographic pockets, and lacklustre antismoking campaigns have lost their grip on public imagination. The disjunction between the threat and the response is widening. It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America – a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substance’s link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety – one of the post potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.”

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