2006-02-03

Health, Stats & Intolerance: French Fight Fags

Government agencies and nonprofits are trying to wean the French from their beloved tobacco -- and it's working. Quelle surprise! France has long had a special relationship with tobacco. After all, 'nicotine' was named for a Frenchman, Mr.Jean Nicot, the first European to cultivate the plant when it was imported from the 'New World' in the 16th century. Ever since, the French have been in love with the weed -- from 'existentialists' waxing philosophical over coffee and smokes in cafés, to the romantic image of movie stars such as Mr.Yves Montand -- a cigarette dangling from his lips as he seduces Ms.Marilyn Monroe in 'Let's Make Love' -- tobacco and France seemed inseparable. But now, mon dieu, even the French are starting to get serious about giving up the habit. Since 2003, the government has 'upped' its anti-smoking rhetoric, raised taxes on cigarettes by 40 per cent, and poured hundreds of millions of euros into programs aimed at eradicating France's biggest preventable health threat.
'The fight against tobacco is urgent, an absolute priority,' said President Mr.Jacques Chirac in a 2003-03 speech launching his new anti-cancer initiative.
Emboldened non-profit groups have taken to the airwaves, distributed millions of anti-smoking leaflets, and even filed lawsuits against major publications: The suits alleged indirect tobacco advertising in news photos of race car drivers sporting 'Marlboro' logos on their jumpsuits. Meanwhile, sales of smoking-cessation products -- such as patches, gum, and 'GlaxoSmithKline's' 'Zyban' anti-smoking drug -- skyrocketed 47 per cent in 2005. A broader movement. The campaign is starting to work; France's overall smoking rate fell to 31 per cent of the adult population last year, down from a peak of more than 52 per cent in the 1980s. While still high, it's not as bad as anyone visiting a smoky Parisian bistro might assume. By comparison, U.S. American smokers number 21 per cent of the adult population, while in Britain the rate is 26 per cent. More important, even bigger reductions are occurring among young people. The number of French high school students using tobacco has halved since 2001. And government tax hikes helped slash sales of cigarettes to the nation's remaining smokers by nearly one-third in 2005 alone. Tobacco companies are putting on a brave face. Mr.Michael Pfeil, vice-president for communications and contributions for 'Philip Morris International', a subsidiary of 'Altria Group' and the maker of France's top-selling brand, 'Marlboro', cites his company's co-operation with public-health authorities in France and other European countries. He said:
'We do what we can to establish a stable business environment for our company.'
Officials at 'Altadis', the Franco-Spanish venture that makes France's fabled 'Gauloise' and 'Gitanes' brands, couldn't be reached for comment, but 'Altadis' shares have been flat for the past year. The stock is down 11 per cent since the start of 2006, to 34.32_EUR, on the Paris bourse. France's new anti-smoking religion is part of a broader movement across Europe to mirror the U.S.A.'s successful 40-year campaign against tobacco. Already, countries such as Italy, Sweden, and Belgium have moved to limit indoor smoking, while Ireland, Scotland, and Norway have gone even further, outlawing it even in bars and restaurants. Such national efforts have the strong backing of 'The European Union', which mandated dramatically larger and blunter anti-smoking warnings on cigarette packs and ads starting in 2001. Soon, the text warnings may be supplemented with graphic images, such as colour pictures of smoke-scarred lungs and gums. Novel Approaches. So far, the French government's primary focus has been on public-health issues. Mr.Chirac has created a new 'National Cancer Institute', funded with 2_000_million_EUR, that groups together previously disparate medical experts and administrators. Tobacco tops the institute's list of major national health threats. To help citizens quit the habit, the government has opened a series of addiction treatment centres, though appointments are hard to come by. The government's 'Office for the Prevention of Tobacco Addiction' also runs a workplace outreach program that will send staff addiction specialists on 2_000 company visits this year. The program even subsidises 500 'workplace quitting coaches.' One of the most novel approaches -- clearly aimed at younger people who frequent the Internet -- is a Web site backed by France's 'National Institute for Prevention and Health Education'. The colorful site, www.JeSuisManipule.com ('I'm being manipulated'), includes shocking comic strips and videos, anti-smoking testimonials, and interactive on-line forums. It also features downloadable music and streaming anti-smoking ads. Such public efforts come at the same time as nonprofit anti-smoking groups proliferate around France. The new nationwide 'French Alliance Against Tobacco', a coalition of 30 organisations, focuses on subjects ranging from secondhand smoke in bars to tobacco use among youth. Its 'Tabac-Info-Service' hotline, which offers free coaching, is available all day, six days a week -- virtually 24/7 by French standards. Another group, 'Tobacco-Free Business', works with big companies such as 'Renault' and 'Peugeot'. On top of that are dozens of intra-European agencies funded by the likes of the EU and 'The World Health Organization'. Media Attention. The nonsmoking majority of French people are becoming less timid about demanding their rights. Polls indicate that 72 per cent of the population would support a complete ban on smoking in public places.
'We should be talking about smokers living in a nonsmoking society, not the other way around,' says Ms.Céline Fournier, communications manager for an organisation called 'Nonsmokers Rights'.
To promote that perspective, Ms.Fournier's group in 2005 distributed 250_000 copies of a guide to smoke-free bars and restaurants. Other organisations are making clever use of the media to spread the word. For the past year, a coalition of anti-smoking groups has sponsored TV shorts, titled 'I'm Quitting, And You?', pairing French pop star Ms.Ophelie Winter with a regular citizen smoker as they attempt to kick the habit together. Each thematic episode features the two in reality TV-style settings, addressing the difficulties of quitting, visiting medical experts, and enjoying newfound lung capacity (by jogging together). Advocacy groups also are taking a page from the legalistic North American approach to battling social ills. Under existing French laws banning tobacco advertisements, 'Nonsmokers Rights' sued three newspapers for publishing photographs of 'Formula One' drivers with the 'Marlboro' logo on their gear. The Parisian court of minor offenses ruled against 'Le Monde', 'Le Point', and 'Les Echos' in 2006-01, fining them 800/1000_EUR (plus the plaintiffs' court fees). Changing Image. The outstanding question is whether smoking will become an issue in the upcoming 2007 presidential election. Many people in France doubt the country is ready to adopt a total ban on public smoking -- of the sort now in effect in Spain and Ireland -- though some think it's only a matter of time. Politicians are afraid of the issue, despite vast public support for smoking restrictions. Why? France's 36_000 tobacco-shop owners have threatened to take to the streets if a ban is mooted. Such protests, even by minority groups, have an outsize impact in French media and politics. In fits and starts, France's longtime love affair with cigarettes is finally giving way. Perhaps no recent event underscored the shift more than the news in 2005-09 that 'Altadis' was moving production of 'Gauloises' out of France. The favorite of Mr.Jean-Paul Sartre and Mr.Serge Gainsbourg offshored to Spain? It's a sign of the times.
'The image of the Frenchman with baguette, red wine, and cigarette needs to be slightly altered,' says Mr.Albert Hirsch, a professor of pulmonary medicine and vice-president of an advocacy group, 'The Fight Against Cancer'. 'Soon the cigarette will be gone from the picture.'
'French Tradition Goes Up in Smoke', Matt Vella, Businessweek.com, 2006-02-01

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