French Smoking Ban Marks Cultural Change

Paris (AP) – Imagine French cafes free of cigarette smoke, without smoldering butts or ash underfoot.

The prospect – an imminent reality – raises a question that smoker and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre might have enjoyed contemplating: Will France still be France without widespread smoking in public?

A new ban on smoking in French offices and other public buildings begins next month and will ensnare bars, cafes, restaurants, hotels and casinos from 2008 onward.

France is following the lead of other European countries such as Ireland, Italy or Spain. But kicking the habit here won’t be easy. Even though the number of smokers is declining, cigarettes for many remain as much a part of the French art of living as wine and fatty foods.

„It’s very worrisome,“ award-winning author and smoker Maurice Druon said of the ban. „For four centuries, tobacco was a wonderful thing … It was said to be the ‚holy herb,‘ and now it’s been decreed as horrifying.“

The French connection to smoking runs deep. The word „cigarette“ is French – the diminutive of cigar. „Nicotine“ comes from the name of Jean Nicot, a French ambassador who first shipped tobacco home from Portugal in the 16th century.

But the addiction carries a heavy price: Some 65,000 French people die each year from smoking-related illness or effects of second-hand smoke.

While the ban will mark an important health and cultural shift for France, the country has in fact been gradually weaning itself off smokes for years.

In the 1950s, about three of every four French men smoked, though far fewer women did. Now, just a quarter of the French do – roughly on par with their counterparts in Britain, Italy and Germany, according to statistics agency Eurostat.

Since 2003, when President Jacques Chirac first declared „war on tobacco,“ the government has jacked up taxes, raising the average price of cigarettes by about 50 percent to USD 6.66 per pack.

Starting in February, the ministry will give would-be quitters USD 66 coupons redeemable for the purchase of nicotine patches, chewing gum or lozenges.

A key question is whether authorities will succeed in enforcing the new ban. A 1991 reform that ordered restaurants and bars to set up smoking and nonsmoking sections – some of the toughest anti-smoking measures at the time in Europe – is widely ignored.

„If this decree is applied, the stage is set for pitched battles,“ said Michel Burton, president of The Collective of Lovers of the Art of Living, a group of bon vivants who are seeking ways to fight the ban in court.

But nonsmokers are looking forward to clearing the air.

„Smoke bothers everybody, and it’s a sign of the times that it’s now on the way out,“ said Gregory Mathies, a 27-year-old technology consultant sipping a cola in a Paris cafe.

„There was such mythology around the cigarette that just doesn’t exist anymore,“ added Mathies, a former smoker himself. „It’s not ‚good riddance‘ exactly, but rather ’no regrets.'“