Smoking Changes in the City of Light

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Happy New Year 2017!
Happy New Year 2017!

The New Year’s Eve fireworks in France not only announce a calendar change – they also proclaim new government legislation such as a price increase in postal stamps, food labelling restrictions or pollution stickers for your automobile.  I chose one of the most significant ones of January 1st 2017 for this blog, the new packaging rules for one of France’s most famous symbols – the almighty cigarette.

Anyone who visits France from the US immediately notices how much the Parisians smoke.  Why?  Because they can.  They can smoke on the street here.  There is a ban on cigarette smoking in bars and restaurants but that just means the smokers get to sit on the terrace (the nicest spot) where supposedly the smoke gets diffused into the atmosphere.  However, if you’re sitting near the terrace, you’re inhaling just as much as the Frenchman puffing away next to you.  And, if you’re walking around Paris and happen to look up, you’ll most likely see someone smoking on their balcony and subsequently throwing the still-lit cigarette butt on the street (or perhaps on you!).  There is supposed to be a 68 Euro fine ($72 dollar) for cigarette littering but the smoker needs to be “caught in the act” by a policeman.  Fat chance of that happening.  This new law is a bit easier to enforce – it obliges all cigarette packaging to be “neutral.”

The reasoning behind this is that it will deter children and young adults from starting to smoke since it won’t be “cool” anymore.  The packs can still have the brand name on them but it has to be in small print and in only one place.

One example of the new mandatory "neutral" cigarette pack.
One example of the new mandatory “neutral” cigarette pack.

Even though the government calls this new packaging “neutral,” that’s not really the case. The shocking photos of black lungs, gray teeth and disgusting purple feet can now occupy up to 65% of the package as compared to only 30% of the older versions.  Marisol Touraine, the French Health Minister claims that 78,000 deaths per year are linked to smoking.  She also said that 33% of teenagers smoke daily.  The new packaging targets that specific population following the adage that the best way to quit smoking is to never start.

As you can imagine, this law was not an easy one to pass here in France, where smoking is a real part of the scenery (just check out the butts on the ground).  The angry Tobacconists’ Union staged several protests in 2016, claiming they would lose a lot of business and the law would be ineffective in reducing the number of smokers in France.  At one point, they dumped, literally dumped, 4 tons of carrots in front of the Senate building.  Why carrots you might ask? Did they want to encourage people to smoke vegetables?  No, it was because the carrot looks like the famous “TABAC” sign, which is their logo. The protests differed the law for a few months and gave the tobacconists an extra six months to sell their stock of cigarettes with the old packaging, but that’s it.  It is now in effect.

Carrots dumped outside the French Senate in protest by the French Tobacconists.
Carrots dumped outside the French Senate in protest by the French Tobacconists.

Some argue that cigarette taxes bring in so much money that it’s worth being nice to the tobacco industry.  Look at all the revenue France would lose if everyone really kept their New Year’s resolution to kick the habit.  The sale of cigarettes brings in about 14 billion Euros yearly. There are 27,000 tobacconists in France who employ 100,000 people.  However, the Health Ministry says that the price of medical care related to smoking costs three times what it brings in.   Australia was the first country to pass the neutral cigarette packaging law, back in 2012.  They claim there is already evidence that it is reducing smoking in the teenage population.  UK and Ireland are on their way to enforcing these same measures.

Will this new measure make any noticeable difference in the smoking population of France?  I sincerely doubt it.  The French are good at “thinking outside the box” (pun intended).

Puffing away in the streets of Paris.
Puffing away in the streets of Paris.

I’m sure they will make more trips to Italy and Spain to buy their cigarettes in their original packaging. They might come up with funky and/or elegant cigarette cases that would appeal to smokers of all ages.  Or the tobacconists can start delivering cigarettes 24/7.  Maybe Uber can begin a new line of service for smokers only and offer cigarettes to their clients instead of water and candy.  My point is, in any case, the inhabitants of the City of Light will never stop lighting up – no matter what laws the government might pass.

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