Smoking Changes in the City of Light

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.

When French Arrogance Pays Off – Vigilante Justice in France

I often write about how arrogant the French are and how they are so proud of that trait in their collective DNA.  I usually talk about it in a negative sense, having been married to a Frenchman for a while and remembering so many fights where he absolutely had to give me some kind of “moral lesson”.  I also come across daily French life lessons from disgruntled bus drivers, bakers, school teachers, administrative workers.  It can be exasperating sometimes, but, I just saw an example of where a crime was prevented and a very dangerous situation averted due to a French woman’s up-in-your-face attitude. You gotta love it.

The in-your-face attitude that the French are famous for.
The in-your-face attitude that the French are famous for.

This true story is about an attempted robbery which happened last week in a bar/tabac in a small town in Normandy, near Calvados. It was about ten in the evening and a hooded man toting a pistol and an empty bag burst into the quiet bar where there were about ten clients.  The manager and owner, Nathalie, was holding a month-old baby in her arms when the robber stormed in.  He shouted something about this being a hold-up and the first thing she did was to start yelling at him about how that wasn’t the way one should talk around a baby.  She calmly brought the baby back to his mother in the next room and then came back to handle this guy.

She yelled at the thug some more and told him he should take off his hood if he wanted her to talk to him.  He demanded to see the manager.  She kept on insisting that he show his face, all the while shouting that she was the manager.  Nathalie insisted that a real man wouldn’t hide behind a mask and threaten a baby. She advanced toward him; aggressively

Peaceful town of Champ-du-Boult where the robbery almost happened.
Peaceful town of Champ-du-Boult where the robbery almost happened.

pushing him out the door.  A shot was fired and then another one. (The shots, fortunately, turned out to be blanks).  A client picked up a chair and crashed it over the robber’s head while Nathalie picked up his empty bag and beat him a few times with it. The guy finally made it out the door and took off on his motorbike.

Now, the police, of course, don’t suggest that anyone follow Nathalie’s example.  They don’t advocate vigilante justice.  But, as Nathalie said in an interview afterward, she had no time to think.  Her French sense of civic education and her arrogant French attitude just took over.  No one acts like the robber did in front of a baby!

Bar owner Nathalie shouting at the robber wannabe.
Bar owner Nathalie shouting at the robber wannabe.

That was the first thing she preached to him.  Secondly, if you want to talk to me, take off your mask.  And thirdly, get the heck out of my establishment!  And take this stupid, empty bag with you!  At the time of this failed robbery, Nathalie didn’t know that the gun was shooting blanks.  But she didn’t care.  That guy’s actions in front of the baby were unacceptable.

The would-be thief actually came back to the scene of the crime since he had forgotten his charger.  The police were on their way and the young 21-year-old man knew he would be caught.  He gave himself up and Nathalie waited with him calmly in her bar for the police to pick him up.  She undoubtedly had time to give him a few more life lessons.  (One of them probably was that he should have been a bit more prepared and certainly not have forgotten his charger!)