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France's Stubborn Smokers

By       Message Marcel Aubry     Permalink
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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, ever the source of choice quotes, raised eyebrows within France's medical community when he lambasted the plain-packaging rules recently included in a wider health law by health minister Marisol Touraine. In his comments last month, Sarkozy reportedly said: "If we accept plain cigarette packets, in six months they will propose plain wine bottles, and our designations of origin, our terroirs, and our know-how will be no more. Tomorrow, you will have extremists who ask you to accept plain bottling. And then plain cheese."

Doctors in France, even though they had their own issues with Touraine's legislation, tut-tutted Sarkozy's comments. His statements, however, speak to the ongoing pasteurization of one of the French nation's favorite pastimes. We are, after all, a nation that is indelibly tied to smoking. There are 16 million people who light up in France (out of a population of 66 million) and yet we still manage to remain healthier than other Western countries with lower smoking rates, despite our stubborn insistence on the habit. Smoking is a cultural touchstone in France, and the refusal of the public to go along with the government's anti-smoking campaigns fits in well with this country's tradition of rebellion against authority. In trying to discourage or disgust French smokers from buying packs, the new packaging rules are sure to see many customers buy anyway--using their wallets to thumb their noses at the nanny state.

For better or worse, France's political class seems intent on pushing forward with the paquet neutre. The health law was passed in December of last year, and the French government just recently announced its timeline for implementing them. By 1 January 2017, all cigarette packs sold by France's buralistes will need use the intentionally monotone olive-green plain packaging (and any leftover packs from 2016 will no longer be legal to sell). In the lead-up to next year, the old models of cigarette packs will go out of production and manufacturers will need to start using plain packs; this applies to individual packs as well as cartons and rolling tobacco (which many French are highly fond of). Over the course of six months, the current packs will be able to continue shipping--but after 20 November, deliveries will cease and only the buralistes will still have the right to sell them. Of course, this is assuming the law holds up in court between now and then: one of the major tobacco companies has already appealed to the Conseil d'État (Council of State) on intellectual property grounds.

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The tobacco industry has been arguing about its rights to trademarks for some time, but that is unlikely to be the average French smoker's main complaint about the new measures. Sarkozy's remarks about plain packaging doing away with France's precious savoir-faire might seem flippant, but they mean quite a bit in a country where cheeses, wines, and all manner of other less-than-healthy products (which, taken together, form the backbone of our lifestyle) have their labeling and presentation rigorously protected by French laws. In other countries where these rules have been instituted, such as Australia, the march toward plain packaging has already set its sights on fast food. Forcing all cigarette products into uniform boxes and plastering health warnings on them already seems a condescending approach to informing us about our health, and one that may not even be all that effective--as several Australian bloggers have pointed out, that country's government is at pains to prove its own trend-setting plain-packaging laws have actually had much to do with falling smoking rates. If the Health Ministry tries to apply the same measures to the rest of our beloved vices, Sarkozy will be far from the only person complaining.

Of course, smoking rates are lower in France than they once were, even if the drop hasn't been as substantial as in other countrie s--and even if our beloved indoor terraces and cigarette butt-littered sidewalks may cause visitors to think otherwise. Even as they turn away from old-school cigarettes, though, would-be French smokers are still clearly on the hunt for nicotine. Back in 2013 (before they even became truly popular), one million French people were already puffing away happily on e-cigarettes, switching out tobacco for nicotine vapor and exotic flavors. For Marisol Touraine, one million e-cig smokers is apparently too many: at the same time her ministry announced its upcoming cigarette-packaging rules, it also made clear that e-cigs would be banned from many public places. In her view, the electronic devices could be a "gateway drug" for young people interested in cigarette use. It remains to be seen whether the new plain-packaging rules for cigarettes turns out to be a gateway drug for the functionaries at the Health Ministry, leading them down the slippery slope of slapping ugly labels on the other guilty pleasures we love most.

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Marcel hails from France and is an aspiring writer, independent thinker, sports wonk and petrolhead. Views are his own.

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