No (Revolutionary) Fire as France Curbs Smoke

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Pascal Le Segretain / Getty

Men smoke cigarettes in the street in Paris, January 31, 2007. France has introduced a smoking ban in public places.

Anyone expecting a great national rebellion bringing millions of irascible Gauloise-puffing Gauls to the barricades in defiance of authority and good sense will have been disappointed: France's nearly 15 million smokers meekly complied with the Feb. 1 law obliging them to haul their (cigarette) butts outside if they want to light up, or risk a hefty fine should they continue smoking in enclosed spaces. In fact, that relatively docile compliance with a liberty-restricting measure represented as significant a revolution in French cultural attitudes as does the state's health-driven campaign against tobacco.

"It's a pain, but that's the law, and the bosses are applying it," says a 34 year-old supermarket employee named Christophe who declined to give his last name as he paced the sidewalk for his smoke. Before the ban, Christophe says he and fellow inhalers were allowed to smoke in the large storage room in the central-Paris supermarket. "Now we can't and we're out here," he says, shrugging between drags. "That's life."

It was to save life that French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin last year announced the decree prohibiting smoking in any "collectively used area" in both public and private venues. The measure, which came into force on Thursday, limits indoor smoking in collectively-used areas to sealed "fumoirs," the specifications for which are so rigid and so costly that few have been built. To enforce the law, some 175,000 agents — primarily labor and health inspectors — have begun scrutinizing places of work, commerce and administration during their rounds for signs or smells of illicit puffing. They can fine errant smokers $88, and employers up to $975 for repeated infractions. But even if every one of France's 15 million smokers were caught brown-fingered during an illegal drag, the collective fine wouldn't come close to financing the estimated $19.5 billion the nation's health care system spends to treat tobacco-related illness.

Previous legislation banning smoking in certain public areas had largely been flaunted; successive hikes in per-pack taxes were viewed as more efficient in getting the French to kick the habit — and are believed to have helped drive the smoking proportion of France's population down from more than one in three to 26.7%, which ranks it in the middle of Europe's averages. But with nearly half of French people aged 20-25 having developed the habit, the smokers' percentage of the population is set to rise again, and with it the number of deaths. That's why the new law doesn't aim only to restrict smokers' opportunities to light up; it also seeks to protect those subjected to second-hand smoke, which is responsible for nearly 10% of France's 66,000 annual tobacco-related deaths.

To sweeten the pill, the government is underwriting patch- and gum- treatment kits to help citizens quit smoking. Many companies have also started to finance treatments to help employees kick their ciggies, which has the added benefit for employers of losing less work time to smoking breaks.

So, will the new measures wean the French off their beloved "clopes"? Polls show nearly 80% of respondents reporting satisfaction with the move to clear the air, and many observers have been pleasantly surprised at the general willingness of smokers to get with the healthier times. But not everyone is happy with the new restrictions. While some grumbled about "American-style" kill-joy obsessions with health at the expense of life's small pleasures, others complain that the ban won't extend to cafes, bars, restaurants, discos and hotels until next January.

"Until then, we're going to keep getting smoked-out, and I'm fed up of that!" cries Jeanne Le Roux, a retiree from the suburbs as she leaves a Paris caf´┐Ż crowded with morning clients looking for a chemical boost. "The law is a good start, but it's not enough!" No one among the inhaling and non-smoking crowd looking on speaks up to object to Le Roux's complaint.

Cultural revolution, indeed.