- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

MORZINE, France — That cigarette butt glued to your favorite bartender’s lips has passed into history — together with the black beret once worn by grape pickers in the glorious vineyards of France.

France woke up Wednesday facing stiff fines for smoking in all public places — including bars, restaurants, gambling casinos and discotheques. The latest government decision has relegated the cigarette to the role of outcast, allowed only in the open air.

In the Samoyed Bar of this scenic Alpine village, the historic day began when bartender Jean-Pierre — his last name camouflaged in a last curl of blue smoke — tore down a Christmas poster showing Santa Claus holding a pack of well-known American cigarettes. He replaced it with a new one: “Protect Your Children — Don’t Let Them Inhale Your Cigarette Smoke.”

High up on the snow-covered mountain where the cable car from the valley comes to a halt at 5,000 feet, four men silently picked up their cards at the Chez Flo cafe after a last game of “belote” accompanied by strong, black “gauloises” cigarettes.

It was not so much their civic spirit but the threat of a fine of 68 euros ($100) for violating the new law on smoking. Georges Coquillard, the cafe’s owner, would have to pay up to $1,095 for tolerating smoking on the premises.

After a one-day period of grace since the law went into effect Jan. 1, inspectors from the Health Ministry and rural policemen fanned out through the country to watch — and punish.

Roselyne Bachot, the health minister, inspected several “brasseries” in Paris where silent nonsmokers sat in front of black coffee and croissants.

“Smokers cannot exercise their freedom to the detriment of nonsmokers,” she told them.

Outside, news vendors were selling the daily Le Figaro with a headline “Long Live France Without Tobacco.”

For years, the French press has been printing alarming statistics on how tobacco has harmed people’s lives. Some 60,000 people are said to be dying every year because of tobacco in various forms. An estimated 14 million out of France’s population of 60 million are regular smokers. Sixty percent of them claim they would like to stop but don’t know how.

With 33 percent of the adult population smoking, France is behind Greece (42 percent), Bulgaria (36 percent) and Poland (35 percent) in the European Union. As statistics of health hazards increase, revenues of tobacco companies have plunged.

“Considering the ravages of tobacco, one wonders how the French state has tolerated this situation for so long,” editorialized Le Figaro.

“Without tobacco, France can finally breathe,” said a commentator on the France Inter radio.

In addition to France, Portugal and the German city of Berlin joined the smoking ban Jan. 1. On Thursday, Turkey’s parliament approved a law extending a smoking ban to all bars, restaurants and coffeehouses by mid-2009.

Stoically, French cafe owners braced for a drop in revenues, hoping patrons will eventually get used to drinking without that cigarette. They also hope for a warm and early spring when they can set up tables on sidewalks.

And for now, some restaurant owners are trying imaginative ways to retain smoking customers.

A cafe owner in the western city of Rennes is lending customers fleece jackets to wear while they stand outside to smoke.

“To say to a customer ‘go and smoke your cigarette outside’ is a bit harsh. Lending him a fleece to wear is friendlier,” Agence France-Presse quoted owner Gilles Berard of Chat Qui Peche cafe as saying.

Meanwhile, millions of ashtrays were dumped into plastic bags for garbage collection. Newspapers praised the results of similar decisions in Ireland, Italy and other EU countries that imposed the tobacco ban before France.

Newspaper readers are given voluminous advice on how to “find freedom without cigarettes” while well-known doctors supply statistics on heart attacks blamed on smoking.

Owners of discotheques have yet to devise a system under which patrons wanting to smoke outside can leave and return to their tables. For the time being, they can only do it by settling the check before every departure.

The ban has already had its first casualty.

A hookah-pipe bar owner in eastern France is suing the state for damages, claiming the smoking ban has put it out of business.

The Sphinx, set up three years ago in the eastern city of Metz, closed Jan. 1 when the ban came into effect, AFP reported.

Like many of France’s estimated 800 hookah-pipe bars, the Sphinx offered Middle Eastern-style water pipes and tea, but no alcohol — with tobacco sales providing its core source of income.

The other casualty of the ban could be smoke-laced idioms in the French language.

The French Academy, that august guardian of the purity of the language, will have to face a delicate problem how to cope with expressions based on smoking but referring to something else.

Among the most commonly used is “crasser la pipe” (“break the pipe”) meaning “to die,” or “passer a tabac” (“put through tobacco”), which could be translated as mugging or beating up.



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