April 14, 2006

French smoking ban up in smoke

By Kerstin Gehmlich

PARIS (Reuters) - Relieved French smokers can muse that
every cloud has a silver lining as they enjoy a cigarette at
the bar with their morning coffee.

The government, weakened by a battle with unions and
students over a controversial youth jobs contract, backed away
from a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants this week to
avoid a confrontation with France's many smokers and

The image of Parisian cafes filled with smoke from pungent
Gauloise cigarettes has changed since Socialists forced
hostelries to clean up their act in the 1990s, but the idea of
a total ban in public places is still a source of controversy.

"Sell Out!" fumed anti-smoking campaigners who accused the
government of sacrificing the health of millions.

But smokers, taxed to their filter tips in recent years,
quietly puffed their approval after what they saw as a surprise
last-minute reprieve.

"I love my daily coffee and cigarette," said Louisa Bunz,
47, as she smoked in a central Paris bar.

The idea of making restaurants tobacco-free and forcing
smokers into hermetic, ventilated phone box-style cabins
without drinks and food was ridiculous, she said.

"It would be like a little smokers' prison cell," she said.


The government said on Wednesday it was delaying
legislation to ban smoking in public places, and called for
months of consultations. Two days earlier it had abandoned
plans for a new jobs contract to make it easier to hire and
fire young people.

Anti-smoking campaigners say tobacco is responsible for
some 60,000 deaths each year in France, where about a quarter
of the population smoke. Surveys show a large majority of
French people would like smoke-free restaurants.

Since 1992, bars and restaurants are supposed to have up
clearly defined non-smoking areas. In practice the areas are
often hard to spot.

"How many articles and reports does it take before a
self-evident decision is taken?" said Gerard Dubois, a health
professor in the city of Amiens.

"April 12, 2006 will mark the first day of a new public
health scandal: The 'contaminated air scandal'."

The authorities have vowed to cut smoking in public places,
in part to attract health-conscious tourists. Smoking bans
already exist in Ireland, Italy and Spain.

Many people were surprised by the government's climbdown,
saying they had not expected it to cause widespread unrest.

"People are too lazy to take to the streets over smoking,"
Arezki Messad said, enjoying a cigarette in a Paris cafe.

But bar and tobacco shop manager Madjid Mezizenne said the
smoking ban could have hurt business.

"It would be bad for us, bad for sales. People are already
smoking less and sales will fall further," he said.

The MIH restaurateurs' union expressed concern over the
effects of an all-out ban, but economists discounted
suggestions it would hurt the service sector.