French Prepare to Face Tighter Anti-Smoking Laws

In France, where smoking is ubiquitous, an existing ban covering office buildings, public transportation and schools is only loosely enforced. But next month, an official commission is expected to recommend tightening the law.

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It looks like the French love affair with the cigarette is about to be extinguished. Battle lines are being drawn in France as politicians consider a total ban on smoking in public places.

An existing law banned smoking in office buildings, public transportation and schools, but it's only loosely enforced. Next month an official commission is expected to recommend tightening the law and changing a feature of French life.

Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Jean Pierre LeBrav(ph) is the owner of Le Gallia(ph), a tobacco shop in Paris's 11th arrondissement. Both LeBrav's father and grandfather were tobacconists. Since Napoleonic times, such licensed tobacco shops, known as tabac, are the only authorized distributors of cigarettes in France. And Le Gallia, like most tabac, is coupled with a bar and bistro which serves meals. LeBrav says he's not against the smoking ban in principle as long as the 31,000 bar tabac in France are excluded.

Mr. JEAN PIERRE LEBRAV (Owner, Le Gallia Tobacco Shop, Paris): (Through translator) To just suddenly do away with a tradition that has existed for centuries would be idiotic. This is a convivial place. We all respect each other and we don't need a law.

BEARDSLEY: LeBrav proudly shows his No Smoking section, where he has installed a ventilator to help purify the air for his non-smoking customers. Over at the zinc-topped bar, one of his smoking customers, Ben Jerrare(ph), has just bought a pack of Marlboros and is having his morning espresso.

Mr. BEN JERRARE (Customer, Le Gallia, Paris): (Through translator) Imagine coming in and having your coffee and then stepping outside on the sidewalk to light up? How absurd. For a smoker it's an absolute necessity to have a cigarette with your morning coffee.

BEARDSLEY: Certainly smoking has long been a way of life in French café society. The dangling cigarette seemed essential to the image of a Left Bank intellectual or a French movie star. In his ode to lighting up, chain-smoking French singer Serge Gainsbourg crooned with Catherine Deneuve, God smokes Havanas, God smokes Gitanes, and I want his last one.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SERGE GAINSBOURG (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: But Congressman Yves Bur says it's time to change all that.

Mr. YVES BUR (Vice President of the National Assembly): France is not an exception. And what is possible in Ireland, in Italy, in New York is possible in France.

BEARDSLEY: Bur, a longtime anti-smoking advocate, says a total ban is the only way to protect workers in hotels, bars and cafes from secondary smoke, which he says kills 5,000 people a year in France.

Mr. BUR: The banning of smoking in public (unintelligible) will be a good thing for French image. The French image cannot be only the French of the little bars in Paris. France and Paris has changed.

BEARDSLEY: Bur may be right. While about a third of the French still smoke, public health campaigns, smoking restrictions and extra tax on cigarettes have whittled away at smoking's popularity. A recent poll showed 78 percent of the French favor a total ban on public smoking.

Back at Le Gallia, 40-year-old Laurance DeLans(ph) is enjoying her lunch and a cigarette. But even DeLans says she supports a total ban.

Ms. LAURANCE DELANS (Customer, Le Gallia, Paris): (Through translator) The French will complain at first because we always do. But if the law is enforced with fines, it will work.

BEARDSLEY: The government will now decide if it will try to get a smoking ban through Parliament or change the law by decree to avoid confrontation with the powerful French smoking lobby in the run-up to next year's presidential election.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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