Clearing The Air

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The establishment known as le Chien Qui Fume the Smoking Dog has all the essential charms of the traditional Parisian cafe: a mustachioed proprietor behind the century-old, zinc-topped bar; jambon-beurre sandwiches, frothy demis of beer and countless cups of espresso; a dog named Pat prowling for fallen scraps. Lunches go on for hours, and quick coffee breaks turn into languid contemplations of the people streaming past on the boulevard Montparnasse. But if the Smoking Dog's atmosphere seems to waft in from some bygone era, so does the thick cloud of incinerated tobacco hacked forth by its clientele people happily flouting a 1993 law that restricts public smoking to segregated areas of the brasserie. Sometimes, in fact, it seems that the dog is the only one in this place who's not smoking.

"At first we tried to respect the law by creating smoking sections and installing ventilation systems, but it became clear smokers were going to go where they liked," explains Catherine Pinet, the bright-eyed, amiable co-owner. Like her husband Claude, who mans the bar, Pinet is an ex-smoker who'd happily do without the tobacco haze, but she says her customers' habit and the cafe's monthly 106,700 in cigarette sales demand otherwise. "Since the law isn't enforced, and non-smokers don't often protest, people have reached a kind of consensus that certain places like cafes, bars and some restaurants remain smoking areas," she says. "If a client tells us that's a problem, we do what we can to work things out. In the end, if the smoke is too much of a problem, the nonsmokers are the ones who have to leave."

Around 32% of the French population smoke down from 45% in 1993 but smokers are still the ones in charge. Despite a decade-old public-smoking restriction, illegal inhaling in France is still so frequent on Metro platforms, in waiting areas and dining spots that asking someone to douse their cigarette is considered bad form and even an act of aggression. And France's unwritten and unlawful pro-smoking culture is far from unique. All of Europe is enveloped by a nicotine cloud that causes more death and disease each year than Chernobyl. In the European Union alone, smoking-related illness causes 500,000 deaths per year 10% of them among non-smokers killed by secondhand smoke.

In Germany, 35% of the population light up and 300 die from their habit every day, but the country's few antismoking laws are rarely enforced. Similarly, the more than one-quarter of Britons who smoke enjoy fairly broad freedom to inhale their fags in pubs and restaurants. In free-puffing Russia, 63% of all males smoke cigarettes account for one in four male deaths and 400,000 people die from tobacco-related diseases each year. "There's a tenacious tobacco culture in Europe that regards smoking as an inalienable right and victimless luxury that only wimps complain about," says Christian Peschang, secretary-general of France's National Committee Against Tobacco Addiction, which monitors application of the antismoking law. "That's insane. The smoker is a victim, those who breathe second-hand smoke are victims, the millions of loved ones who survive them are victims."

In recent decades, European legislators have taken some steps to curb public smoking. Italy passed its first laws banning smoking in public places in 1975. London Regional Transport banned smoking on buses, including the top smoking deck of double-deckers, in February 1991. And in 2001, even the Russian government got in on the act, passing a host of laws that barred smoking in offices and on public transportation and prohibited the sale of tobacco to people under 18. The Russian law also proscribes depiction of smoking in TV, film and theater productions, "unless it is an integral part of the artistic plot."

Sounds good but as often as not, the laws turn out to be as insubstantial as a smoke ring. During the 10 years that the French have been ignoring their public-smoking law, Peschang notes, not a single fine or citation has been issued. The law- books of Greece and Italy are also full of irrelevant antismoking statutes that merely wave a hand against the addiction. "Italy is good at writing laws," laments Angelo Pisani, a Naples lawyer who has filed a class action against tobacco companies. "Enforcing them is another thing."

Like a nicotine-stained wretch making his twentieth New Year's resolution to quit, Europe is once again trying to get serious about its problem. And maybe just maybe this could be the year that the promise sticks. Greece has rolled out tough new curbs on tobacco use and advertising, and the Italian senate has recently approved similar legislation to bolster the country's earlier, marginal rules. And years of foot dragging by national governments have galvanized the European Commission into action. Last month the European Court of Justice the E.U.'s highest judicial body upheld rules set to take effect over the next two years that will force manufacturers to reduce levels of tar and nicotine in cigarettes, increase the size and darken the language of health warnings, and stop the use of terms like mild and light in packaging meaning that R.J. Reynolds' best seller will no longer be called Marlboro Lights. Eight days before, E.U. health ministers approved a measure that will ban print tobacco advertising within months, and prohibit cigarette brands from sponsoring international spectator sports like Formula One racing, beginning in 2005. Such actions may seem modest, but they could prove to be important steps in the long, slow struggle to change Europe's deep cultural acceptance of ambient smoke as acceptable, habitual and harmless. Ironically, people in statist European societies have generally resisted legislative efforts to modify smoking behavior, while government-wary Americans have embraced restrictive laws and tort challenges. Indeed, many Europeans disdain America's trailblazing policies such as New York City's new ban on all public smoking as overly severe and puritanical.

The result is that both smokers and nonsmokers now portray themselves as victims. And with social norms in flux, smoking wars are breaking out all over Europe. So far, the smokers appear to be winning. The door of the Paris power-lunch restaurant Le Pichet carries a defiant message: nonsmokers tolerated. A patron at one of London's oldest restaurants asks a waiter to stop the smokers at the next table, and the waiter chides him: "Smoking is encouraged here, to enhance the enjoyment of the meal." At the interval of a children's musical in the West End of London, five-year-olds charge through a lobby filled with the blue haze of their parents' cigarette smoke. In Denmark, there is no minimum age for purchasing tobacco, so 10-year-olds are free to light up just about anywhere except the classroom. And even Europe's outdoor stadiums offer no haven for nonsmokers, who routinely exit matches reeking from the forest of cigarettes kept blazing in the grandstands throughout games.

But slow, painful, grudging progress is being made. Around 80% of British companies have voluntarily applied bans or restrictions on workplace smoking a revolution that has also swept France, and that's now coming to Greece as well. On the sidewalks outside Athens office buildings and hospitals in which smoking was banned last October, puffing workers stand together and the cigarettes pile up like heaps of macaroni. But the air inside is clean. And though Greece's new antismoking laws generate consistent rebuke "Whoever wants to smoke here can do so, and if people don't like that, they can go to McDonald's," warns Athens taverna owner Dimitris Papageorgiou they are being enforced. Even Papageorgiou's taverna has a no-smoking section. Similarly, though Paris Metro platforms, train station floors and airport waiting areas are still littered with spent butts (ashtrays have been removed from these no-smoking sites), antismoking activists say they're far happier seeing 10 smokers break the law than the 100 who used to puff away legally.

Laws can never completely stamp out smoking, of course, because Europe's craving for cigarettes goes so deep tapping into impulses that are political as much as physical or cultural. Telemaque Maratos, a writer and spokesman in Athens for smokers' advocates group Eleftheria ("Freedom"), condemns Greece's new smoking restrictions as a mix of governmental meddling and misplaced moralizing, rather than a workable health policy. "These measures assume Greeks are naive and in need of a nanny state to guide them down a politically-correct path," says Maratos. "We're a live-and-let-live lot." Or die-and-let-die. After all, the essence of community is an agreement that personal freedoms must be limited when they begin to harm others. And the harm of secondhand smoke is no longer in dispute.

If the philosophical argument against smoking restrictions is weak, the influence of those who profit from the weed is not. Estimates put the tobacco industry's annual sales between $300 billion and $400 billion, 12% of that in Europe. And despite the spread of antismoking legislation and increased tobacco taxation across Europe, industry profits remain solid around 134.8 billion in 2001 for the six largest firms alone. Those dissuasive measures have helped reduce smoking levels from 47% of the E.U.'s adult population in 1987 to around 30% today, but the levels increase to 35% and 40% among the heavy-puffing Eastern European nations set to join the Union in 2004.

And with smoking rates declining fastest among adult males, tobacco companies are now successfully roping in women and young people. The percentage of women who smoke is on the rise throughout the E.U., and now averages around 27%. The smoking population of people aged 15-24, meanwhile, is a dizzying 36.8%. In France, the overall number of smokers is in decline, but the ranks of young tobacco fiends have expanded to include 6% of all 13-year-olds, 36% of 16-year-olds, and a whopping 51% of 19-year-olds. The teen-smoking fad, French authorities forecast, will inflate the nation's annual smoking deaths from around 55,000 today to 165,000 by 2025.

That's particularly bad news for Europe's already overburdened health-care systems. Treating smoking diseases eats up 15.4 billion each year in Italy, 9.9 billion in France, 2.3 billion in Britain. Perversely, tobacco companies argue that the illness and premature death of smokers actually lighten the economic load of national health-care systems. A 2000 report commissioned by Philip Morris in the Czech Republic, for example, argued that early smoking-related deaths saved the national government $190 million a year at today's rates.

By that logic, governments make more income taxing smokers while they are alive than they spend on diseased smokers or lose in taxes when smokers die prematurely. The thesis a favorite of industry lobbyists world-wide is denounced by health officials as economic twaddle and a moral sham. "However we work it out," says Greek Deputy Health Minister Ektoras Nasiokas, "smoking is a huge cost."

Just as the tobacco industry is touchy on the subject of health costs, anti-tobacco activists aren't always pleased with tobacco-taxation schemes. They note that governments can become addicted to tobacco-tax revenues curbing interest in efforts to discourage smoking. Taxes on tobacco products average around 75% per pack E.U.-wide with a 2001 high of 81.6% in Denmark and low of 67.7% in Luxembourg. Revenue-pinched governments across Europe plan to nudge those levels up in 2003, hoping to boost the staggering 47.7 billion in tobacco taxes E.U. members pocketed in 2001.

But rather than discouraging consumption, the new taxes may simply encourage massive smuggling of cigarettes throughout Europe. Roughly one-third of the 5.3 trillion cigarettes produced each year are sold on the black market world-wide a thriving business that in 2001 deprived the E.U. of at least $10-12 billion in tax revenues. That scale of activity and the money it sucks from tax coffers led the E.U. to sue tobacco firm R.J. Reynolds in a U.S. court last October, claiming the company connived in smuggling and subsequent laundering of profits. R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies call the charges false, and the logic skewed. "Smuggling represents 20% to 25% of the market completely outside our control," says Michelle McKeown of British tobacco company Gallaher. Industry says the smuggling problem can be cured by lowering taxes. McKeown estimates that in Britain alone, a cut in taxes reducing the price of a 4.50 pack to 3.50 would suffice to curtail smuggling to the island.

Antismoking activists reply the problem isn't high taxes, but how those proceeds are used often as financial drips for health-care systems whose treatment costs of tobacco-related illness are rising. Instead, argues Peschang, "we should be treating the problem where it begins by enforcing laws and educating young people to avoid tobacco."

In the end, common sense and the passage of time may lead Europe to a middle ground of consensus. It begins with Europe's nonsmoking majority simply asking that its right to clean air be respected, while agreeing that smokers should have places in some bars or certain rooms in restaurants where they can go to smoke. "We would like to see smoking become an exceptional rather than normal behavior," says Dr. John Britton, professor of epidemiology at Nottingham University and a specialist in respiratory diseases. U.K. activists like Britton want to see Britain's successful workplace restrictions extended to pubs, cafes and restaurants either self-imposed, or by law if need be. There will always be conflict, because many pubs are too small to quarantine smokers. However, ash, the U.K.'s leading antismoking group, is willing to accept the idea of bars providing separate rooms for smokers, or, in tiny pubs, banning smoking at the bar. But die-hard smokers are sure to fight that idea.

Back in Paris at the Smoking Dog, regular Ian Wilson wonders what it will take to clear the air. Neither flouted laws nor unspoken consensus on smoking has changed habits much during the Irishman's 17 years in the city. "Apologists say the law imposed limits on smokers and taught them the rest of us have rights too, but I don't see that at all," he says, waving a hand around the smoky cafe. "The answer might be a European rule that everyone would have to obey. But even there I doubt it." While Paris may not be burning, the city like the rest of Europe is still smoking up a storm.