AFTER a long love affair with tobacco, is France about to call it quits? With tobacco-related deaths costing the country billions of dollars for health care and lost productivity, the government is embarking on an antismoking crusade it hopes will reduce the 40 percent of the population that smokes.
Among the measures to be taken are a 15 percent hike in the price of tobacco products Jan. 1, and an antismoking advertising campaign focused on youth. Potentially more effective - and controversial - is a proposal to progressively outlaw all tobacco advertising and promotional activity by 1993.
The Marlboro Man is as well known in France as in the United States, figuring in double-page magazine and newspaper advertisements. At many first-run movies, even those aimed at children, the feature is preceded by promotions for car rallies, radio programs, even travel services, that are sponsored by popular cigarette brands.
The government wants to ban all that, although it faces a barrage of opposition from advertising agencies - who placed about $60 million in tobacco advertising last year - and from promoters who benefit from tobacco company sponsorships. In addition, the government plans to invade the cinemas with its own anti-tobacco messages.
The plan, which Health Minister Claude Evin presented to the Council of Ministers Wednesday, also calls for the progressive banning of most advertising for alcohol products.
Tobacco companies, already banned from French television, say cutting them off from all advertising and promotion would be one more blow to freedom of expression. For the government, however, it's a matter of lives and money.
According to the Ministry of Health, there are 60,000 tobacco-related deaths in France each year, costing the country more than $10 billion. Armed with those statistics, and with studies showing that raising tobacco prices can reduce smoking, Mr. Evin originally advocated a 50 percent price hike over three years. That plan was opposed by a number of ministers, however, including the finance minister, who was concerned about the effect of such an increase on France's inflation rate.
Proponents of a higher price increase note that the 15 percent hike will still leave France among the European countries where tobacco products are cheapest.
The French campaign comes just as the European Parliament is calling for tougher anti-tobacco measures in the European Community.
Cigarette smoking in France has declined slightly over the past decade, among men at least. Among women, it continues to increase slightly. After a 10 percent tobacco-products price hike in 1988, the effectiveness of next year's 15 percent increase remains questionable, especially among the youth the government wants most to discourage.
``All it will do is force me to put more of my budget toward cigarettes,'' says Frank Lecerf, a high school student from Oissel in Normandy. ``Repressive measures are not going to stop people from smoking, especially not the young.'' He says antismoking advertising featuring respected celebrities might work, but mostly if it were aimed at the very young.
According to Frank, who has smoked since he was 13, ``People know the risks they're taking, so they don't need the government telling them what to do.''