Europe's smokers feel heat
France's 20 percent tax increase on cigarettes this week is one sign of a shift in attitudes on the Continent.
PARIS — Au revoir, film icon Yves Montand, with your Gauloise cigarette drooping from the corner of your mouth. Smoking in France will soon have a new image: grotesquely diseased lungs, displayed in full-color photographs plastered all over cigarette packets.
Elsewhere in Europe, where smoking has long been tolerated, the mood is also changing. Ireland, Holland, and Norway will introduce blanket bans on smoking in the workplace next year. Tobacco advertising everywhere is to be largely outlawed. The European Union is studying plans for a Continent-wide, New York-style ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.
After decades of relative inaction, "things are coming to a head," because of growing awareness of the high human and economic costs of smoking, says Sophie Kazan, of the European Network for Smoking Prevention. "It's time."
France, where smoky cafes have long defined the country's image (and ruined many patrons' enjoyment of their croissants), took a bold step this week to dissuade the 32 percent of adults who still smoke: it raised tobacco taxes by 20 percent. A one-day strike by tobacconists fearful for their future did not deter the government from announcing another 20 percent tax hike next January, as part of the "war on tobacco" that President Jacques Chirac declared last March.
Mr. Chirac has made cancer reduction one of the top three goals of his mandate, which makes "the struggle against tobacco a necessity, an absolute priority," he said.
A hard-hitting radio campaign has been launched, encouraging smokers to quit. A law banning cigarette sales to people under 16 was passed earlier this year, 'kiddie-packs' of 10 have been outlawed, and a regular pack will cost more than $5 next January, more than anywhere else in Europe except Britain.
Pricing cigarettes out of smokers' reach has helped many break the habit in Britain, experts say: Half the population smoked 30 years ago, but only a quarter do today, partly because cigarette taxes rose 55 percent between 1992 and 1998.
That policy, however, has also increased the sales of smuggled or counterfeit cigarettes, say tobacco industry officials. "If you make cigarettes very expensive, obviously people will stop or smoke less," says Chris Proctor, head of Science and Regulation at British American Tobacco. "But the bigger effect is to boost illegal sales."
The British government's chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, recommended last July that the government ban smoking in all public places, to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.
Though the British authorities have so far shied away from such a move, preferring to persuade bar and restaurant owners to improve ventilation and expand no-smoking areas, Norway has taken the plunge. In an act of compassion, however, it postponed implementation until next spring so as not to force smokers to go outside in sub-zero temperatures.
In more temperate Ireland, smoking will be forbidden in all workplaces, including pubs, bars, and restaurants as of Jan. 1.
The new rules have caused consternation among publicans, who say smoking is an integral part of pub visits for many people. If the ban "could be introduced without a loss of business, it would be a wonderful thing," says Con O'Leary, landlord of The Laurels in Killarney. "But there will certainly be a big downturn in trade."
Similar fears persuaded the Dutch government to exempt bars and restaurants from its new workplace smoking ban, which comes into force next January. Lobbyists from the hospitality industry argued that such a law would cost 50,000 jobs and 1.3 billion euros in profits.
Few independent studies support that claim, however, and the Pizza Hut chain in Britain has found the opposite to be true. Tired of making customers line up at the door while seats in the smoking sections sat empty, Pizza Hut managers phased out smoking seats until announcing a nationwide smoke-free policy last August.
"Business boomed for several weeks after we went fully no-smoking," says Pizza Hut's operations director, Brian Rimmer. "There was a massive uplift, and I would attribute some of our current success to our decision to go no-smoking."
David Byrne, the European Union health commissioner, is an ardent supporter of antismoking measures. He never tires of pointing out that tobacco-related illnesses, which kill half a million Europeans yearly, are the single largest cause of avoidable death in Europe.
Mr. Byrne announced last month that he was exploring ways to impose an EU-wide ban on workplace smoking, both to protect nonsmokers and to bring the number of smokers in Europe - 34 percent of the population - closer to the US level of 23 percent.
The EU has no authority to ban smoking as such, but it can - through health and safety regulations - legislate to protect nonsmokers from the effects of "passive smoking" where they work.
That is the route Mr. Byrne has chosen. "There is clear evidence now that there is a correlation between passive smoking and health-related responses like disease," Byrne told the Eupolitix.com website. "The less smoking there is in public places, the better."
In the meantime, EU policy is aimed at reducing cigarette sales: since the beginning of this month, manufacturers may no longer call their cigarettes "light," "low tar," or "mild"; all tobacco advertising in newspapers and magazines, on the Internet, or at international sporting events will be outlawed starting in 2005. And already all cigarette packs must bear such grim warnings as, "Smoking can cause a slow and painful death."
"One hard-hitting picture really does say more than a thousand words," says Byrne, whose department has set up a central EU data base of horrifying pictures from which European governments can choose next year when they upgrade the health warnings on cigarette packets.
But even as they step up their war against tobacco consumption, EU officials admit to an embarrassing anomaly in their policies, which also encourage tobacco production. Under pressure from Greek, Spanish, French, and Italian farmers, the European Union hands out 1.3 billion euros a year in subsidies to European tobacco growers.