- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

PARIS — Nearly every Thursday evening, Eloise Marbais has a drink with her friends in one of the many cafes of the trendy Paris quarter called Saint-Germain-des-Pres, where the four history students drink white wine. They also smoke cigarettes without asking people nearby if they mind.

In this cafe, as in 37 percent of French restaurants and bars, there is no partition between the smoking and the nonsmoking sections, despite a 15-year-old law making such partitions compulsory. But things may change in the coming months.

Several European countries, including Ireland, Italy and Spain, have recently forbidden smoking in restaurants and bars, and many French people are calling for a complete ban on smoking in public places. According to a survey by the polling institute Ifop published in February, 78 percent of the population favors such a ban, and more politicians and lawmakers are joining them.

“It’s not a question of whether cigarettes will be banned from public places, but rather a question of when this will happen,” said conservative legislator Yves Bur, who introduced a bill on the subject in the French Parliament in November. But without the backing of his party, the bill was not adopted.

Last month, Health Minister Xavier Bertrand proposed closed smoking rooms in restaurants and cafes. To protect waiters from passive smoke, no food or beverages could be served in the smoking rooms.

But according to a report by the inspectorate general on social affairs, which favors a complete ban: “Smoking rooms, even if they are closed, are not completely reliable in protecting nonsmokers, and many smokers do not appreciate them.”

Smoking issue put off

After weeks of protest against the just-passed labor contract, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin decided to postpone the controversial smoking issue, asking Mr. Bertrand to “organize a wide consultation on the topic in the coming months and to evaluate the different possibilities.”

President Jacques Chirac, who made the fight against cancer one of his three top priorities for his five-year term in office, also said measures regarding smoking in public places should be adopted by the end of the year.

“In 1991, when smoking was banned from public places except in special smoking areas, our legislation was ahead of those in other European countries. It is true that now many countries have overtaken us,” said Claude Evin, author of the 1991 bill, in an interview in Le Monde newspaper.

In March 2004, Ireland became the first country in Europe to ban cigarettes from its pubs and restaurants. The Irish government, which was backed by 17 organizations and most politicians and trade unions, emphasized the risks of passive smoking to obtain public support.

Fines of up to $3,805 for businesses that ignore the public smoking ban and publicizing a phone number where people could denounce violators won the support of the Irish people. According to a report by Ireland’s Office of Tobacco Control, 96 percent of pubs and restaurants apply the law and 89 percent display the required no smoking signs.

In Norway, a similar ban has prevailed since June 2004. Italy followed suit in January 2005, while Sweden last June and Spain since January have also forbidden smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants. Next year, Britain will also turn into a smoke-free country.

France, where 30 percent of the population smokes, is still reluctant to turn its restaurants and bars into smoke-free locations, despite the country’s 60,000 deaths per year attributable to tobacco.

But several steps in this direction have been made since Mr. Chirac, whose goal is to reduce tobacco addiction by 20 percent within five years, was re-elected in 2002.

The increase of the price of cigarettes was the first measure adopted by the French government, in 2003. Between 2002 and 2004, the price was raised from $4.50 to $6.30 for a standard pack of 20 cigarettes.

According to a study by the National Institute of Prevention and Education for Health published in 2003, 46 percent of former French smokers said that year they stopped smoking because of the price of cigarettes, while only 11 percent said this in 1999.

To reduce tobacco addiction among young people in France, where 53 percent of those aged 15 to 24 smoked — a law was adopted in 2003 forbidding the sale of cigarettes to people under 16. Packs of fewer than 19 cigarettes, called “child packs” by the tobacco industry, were also forbidden.

Prevention via prices

“To combat tobacco addiction, I wanted to reward prevention and to act through prices. Within three years, France has 1.4 million fewer smokers. That is a real improvement,” said Mr. Chirac in a speech last month about cancer prevention.

In June, a decision by the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court, also set a new legal precedent about smoking in offices. By condemning a company that did not respect the anti-smoking legislation, the court ruled that companies must eliminate second-hand smoke, not just post signs saying that smoking is forbidden.

But even in places where the law had not changed, the no-smoking motto campaign is gaining ground. At the University of Rennes 2, for instance, all the buildings have been no-smoking since September 2004.

“At the beginning, some employees were reluctant. But everybody got used to it, and those who want to smoke go outside and think it is normal,” said Christine Rousseliere, former vice president of the university. “Lots of smokers are very happy to work in smoke-free buildings because, paradoxically, they were often disturbed by the smoke of others,” she said.

Even in the catering business, nonsmoking has become a criterion more and more appreciated by consumers.

In 2004, the Paris Council created a quality-label for places where smoking was forbidden. Almost 100 restaurants and cafes already have it, such as L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a gastronomic restaurant that has banned smoking since it opened in 2003.

“When we opened the restaurant, we were afraid to loose consumers because of this no-smoking policy, especially since it is part of the French tradition to smoke a cigar at the end of the meal,” said Philippe Braun, director of L’Atelier.

“But in the end, everything went well, and we even attract people who would not have come if it was a smoking restaurant,” he said.

In trains too, things are changing. At the end of last year, the SNCF railway company decided to make all its trains smoke-free, as has been the case for its high-speed trains since December 2004.

This decision was adopted partly because many smokers preferred to book seats in the no-smoking area, because of the atmosphere of the smoking wagons bothered them.

According to a SNCF survey, only 3.9 percent of passengers opposed this decision, while in 2002, opposition was 9 percent.

France eyes total ban

The next step for France seems to be adoption of a complete ban on smoking in all public places, but restaurants and bar owners fear they will lose consumers.

Owners of bars-tabacs, cafes where consumers can also buy cigarettes, are seeking to be excluded from such a rule. Trade unions for the catering industry call for a better enforcement of the 1991 Evin law instead of a complete ban.

“We are against any authoritarian ban. Society can not work with successive bans on salt, fat, tobacco …” said Andre Daguin, president of the UMIH restaurateurs union.

However, the impact on consumption is difficult to prove. According the Irish Central Statistics Office, the volume of alcohol sold has decreased by 3.3 percent since April 2004, but the decline began before the smoking ban.

“The problem is that it is not possible to completely forbid tobacco because too many people are smokers,” said Mr. Evin, who wants to see his 1991 law replaced by a complete ban on smoking in public places.

“But we can create a hostile environment toward its consumption until its extinction. It requires time,” he said.

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