In France, Government Disputes Cigarette Marketed for Teens

State-owned tobacco company is criticized by the Health Ministry

JEAN-FRAN,COIS ROUSSIN, a 15-year-old Parisian high school student, wears looped in his fashionable black jeans an embroidered belt with the word ``Marlboro'' repeated all the way around. Jean-Fran,cois doesn't smoke cigarettes, Marlboro or otherwise, and he doesn't think he ever will. But he likes the image of the rugged cowboy he feels the belt gives him just the same.

The question of cigarettes and the importance of their image in how they sell - and to whom they sell - burst onto the French scene recently when SEITA, the French national tobacco company, began marketing a new cigarette whose target is young smokers.

The cigarette's name is ``Chevignon,'' a name known to every French adolescent: ``Chevignon'' is a brand of American-style clothing, ranging from leather jackets to sweatshirts and caps, that is a ``must'' at most high schools across the country.

There has been no public outcry here as there was in the United States last year with the short-lived launch of ``Uptown,'' a cigarette that targeted American blacks.

But controversy exists nonetheless, because the ``Chevignon'' cigarette is pitting one ministry against another. The Health Ministry says the cigarette violates the spirit, and probably the letter, of a law it pushed through last year which prohibits the use of ``indirect advertising'' for tobacco and alcohol products. Minister Bruno Durieux says that using a name so popular with image-conscious children does just that.

But the Budget Ministry, which has SEITA under its wing, says it is not trying to lure any nonsmokers with its product. Its objective, according to minister Michel Charasse, is simply to build up its share of the light-tobacco market, which is dominated by foreign brands, notably Marlboro. Chevignon cigarette's assignment is simply ``to convince those who persist in using tobacco products to choose SEITA rather than a foreign brand,'' says Mr. Charasse.

That argument has held little water for many, however. The French Greens, an environmental group, issued a statement comparing Charasse's reasoning to 19th century mercantilism, and suggested that if he had lived then he would have used similar arguments to justify child labor.

And the daily Le Monde ran a cartoon showing a SEITA employee proposing to Charasse the creation of a ``Babar the elephant'' cigarette, after a popular French cartoon character.

Others argue that prohibiting the ``Chevignon'' brand would only guarantee the continuing success of ``youth image'' cigarettes like Marlboro, while eventually condemning the French tobacco industry. More antitobacco education is a better response, they say, noting that smoking in the US is in constant decline, even while advertising is less controlled.

Prime Minister Michel Rocard, embarrassed by the interministerial sniping, has come down firmly on the side of the law and against the Chevignon brand. The government has even threatened the clothier's right to advertise.

But as of last week, SEITA said ``Chevignon,'' the cigarette, was selling well and that it did not intend to pull the product.

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