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.

Let’s Keep Those Parisian Butts Off the Ground

     It’s no contest that Paris, the City of Light, is a visual splendor. Ornate monuments enhance the skyline and decorate the Seine.  However, if you spend even just a few minutes checking out the sidewalks of Paris, you will see that they are decorated with other kinds of lights.  In between dog crap, papers and spit, there are literally millions of cigarette butts lining the city streets.

Parisians tend to use and abuse trees as urban ashtrays.

When the Parisians are done huffing and puffing and looking really cool,  they just throw their butts away — out of windows, cars, stores and into the streets. It is a grand example of the Parisian paradox.  They care about looking good themselves but they don’t care about how their city looks. So, the politicians took over and made a law.

     In theory, this new law went into effect in Paris in September 2015.  Well, at least you can see posters explaining it on the city’s garbage trucks.  I have yet to see it be enforced.

350 tons of cigarette butts per year in Paris alone!
350 tons of cigarette butts per year in Paris alone!

The law says that you will be fined 68 Euros (the price of a carton of cigarettes) for each cigarette butt you throw on a public street.  (You would, of course, have to be caught in the act by one of the more than 500 agents who have been hired to enforce this legislation…not an easy thing.)  The city of Paris is installing 10,000 municipal ash trays – stylish and chic metal garbage cans to make it easy for smokers. I honestly don’t think that will help. It would be easier to totally ban smoking in the street than to make people be responsible for their own trash.

     When I moved to Paris in the 80’s, I was culturally shocked when I saw people throw their cigarette butts on the cafe floor while they had their cup of coffee.  Where this would be unacceptable in the USA, here it was considered normal behavior.  A waiter would come and sweep them up every couple of hours or so.  The individual Parisian was not responsible for his own trash.  Private society took care of it.  Now that you can no longer smoke inside cafes, smokers, having kept the same gesture of flicking their butts away, just move their flicks out onto the streets.

Ready, set, flick!
Ready, set, flick!

It’s not irresponsibility; it’s a reflex…a smoker’s reflex that they learned when they started smoking.  Old habits die hard….or just get passed on from generation to generation.

     I have seen Parisians throw butts out of their balcony windows and onto the street – sometimes barely missing a baby in his stroller or a bald-headed pedestrian.  Not only is this disgusting but it’s also dangerous since these butts are often still lit.  An unenforceable law is not the answer. The new law says the “flicker” needs to be caught in the act that takes only a second or two to complete.  That’s never gonna happen. However, I did get to thinking about how the French managed to get their drivers to slow down on the highways.  The police hardly stop speeders anymore.  They just photo-flash them and send them fines in the mail.  OK, they do happen to have the license plate as an indicator of whom to send the fine to but we could get creative here.
     What if the city of Paris set up cameras targeting the most butt-filled places in Paris?  They could position discreet cameras outside of popular bars and spy on the litterbugs. Then the police could just ask for the person’s identity card and send them the photo and the 68 euro fine in the mail.  For repeat offenders, the fines would be tripled and soon the litterbugs would be financing their own clean-up or, better still, there would be no need for it.  Or, how about the city of Paris paying for the return of cigarette butts to specified places?  They could pay-by-the-kilo to people who help clean up the streets – they could

Do the right thing -- pick up your butts.
Do the right thing — pick up your butts.

assign them specific streets in their neighborhood.  I’m sure that would be cheaper than trying to enforce the new law.  Or how about smokers being able to buy a new pack of cigarettes only if they brought back the butts from their last pack?  That’s certainly thinking out of the box!

      It is a New Year and time to make new resolutions.  Instead of resolving to stop smoking, the Parisians could just promise to pick up after themselves and make their personal smoking a private matter.  They could simply keep their butts off the ground of this beautiful city.