Tobacco Is King : French Let Smoke Get in Their Eyes

Times Staff Writer

Only one restaurant in all Paris prohibits smoking. Only a handful, mostly American fast-food outlets, have nonsmoking sections. Premier Jacques Chirac rarely talks to reporters without waving a cigarette for emphasis. A stranger can always identify the high school in any Paris neighborhood by the cluster of teen-agers outside puffing awkwardly on cigarettes. The French government spends far more every year on promoting smoking than on discouraging it.

There are other countries where smoking is more prevalent. Anyone who has ever listened to the raspy voice of a bartender in Madrid or choked at breakfast in a Polish coffee shop knows that. But few countries are as puzzling as France in their attitude toward smoking.

Educated Society

With a highly educated society, France--the land of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, the home of some of the most sophisticated and daring research on AIDS in the world--is a laggard on the issue of smoking and health. Government officials would rather avert their eyes than get involved. Minister of Health Michele Barzach, a doctor who often lectures the nation with vigor and great charm on the prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, suddenly turned tongue-tied on television the first time she was asked about smoking.


One obvious reason for the government’s hesitation is its own financial interest. A government company, SEITA (the initials in French for the National Society for Industrial Development of Cigarettes and Matches), has a monopoly on the production of cigarettes and other tobacco products in France. It also distributes almost all imported cigarettes.

Publicity Campaign

This creates obvious anomalies. The government tobacco company, for example, is one of the main funders of a publicity campaign urging tolerance for smokers--at a time when the Ministry of Health has postponed its anti-smoking campaign for lack of money.

“Don’t you find this situation a little comic?” a French journalist asked Francis Eyraud, the managing director of SEITA, at a recent news conference. Eyraud replied by explaining that his company is just like any other in the hunt for profits--except that it need worry about only one stockholder, the Ministry of Finance.

But the existence of the government tobacco monopoly is not the only reason why France lags in dealing with a health hazard that kills thousands in France every year. The issue is complicated as well by the weakness of consumer groups in France and by the strong, stubborn French sense of individual independence.

Cherished Liberty

Defense of liberty is accepted as a valid argument for smoking even by some opponents of smoking.

“We live in a society of liberty, where a person’s health is something very personal,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Health said.

Dr. Norbert Bensaid, a French doctor who opposes smoking, once said, “To be an idiot and smoke is a liberty like any other.”

A closer look at the smoking problem in France, in fact, reveals a good deal about French attitudes and institutions and how much they differ from those in the United States. In its most potent argument against smoking restrictions, the French tobacco industry raises the specter of the United States. The tobacco interests insist that recent regulations and pressures in the United States deny smokers the individual liberties that Frenchmen hold dear.

“We French do not want the fatal solution that has become the American way of dealing with smoking,” Eyraud said.

Citing the case of 23-year-old Adrian Butler, who was stabbed to death more than a year ago in an argument after he refused to put out his cigarette on a Los Angeles bus, Jacques Sequela, the creator of the tobacco industry’s latest advertising campaign, told reporters, “The only person who ever really died from smoking was that man killed in Los Angeles.”

54,000 Deaths

The somewhat jocular comment flies in the face of a report prepared for the Ministry of Health in September by Dr. Albert Hirsch, a professor of medicine at the University of Paris. Hirsch reported that smoking was the direct or indirect cause of 54,000 deaths in France in 1982--10% of all the nation’s deaths that year.

Although the number of smokers declined from 59% of all French over 15 years old in 1953 to 38% in 1986, Hirsch reported, the consumption of cigarettes had doubled from three cigarettes a day for every adult in France in 1950 to six a day in 1985. Even more alarming, Hirsch found that 66% of all French 18-year-olds smoke and that some of them started as early as age 12.

Hirsch laid down some of the economic realities of smoking. Although SEITA lost money for several years in the 1980s, the government collected $2.3 billion in cigarette taxes in 1985. Cigarette taxes, in fact, account for 2% to 2.5% of the total revenues of the government every year.

Low Prices

The government would collect even more--and its company, which is now profitable, would earn even more--if the government raised the price of cigarettes, now among the cheapest in Europe, but it has refused out of fear of the political damage.

A pack of dark Gauloises cigarettes costs about 90 cents in France; a pack of imported Marlboros costs about $1.60. Hirsch estimated that prices are generally about double in Britain and 50% higher in West Germany.

The French tobacco industry’s information center, without naming the brand, recently compared the prices in Europe for a pack of imported cigarettes that cost $1.60 in France. A pack of the same brand, the center said, cost $4.70 in Denmark, $3.40 in Ireland, $2.60 in Britain, $2.40 in Germany, $2.15 in Italy, $2 in the Netherlands and $1.95 in Belgium and Portugal. Only Luxembourg, with a price of $1.50, Spain with $1.40 and Greece with $1 charged less.

Enforcement Urged

The Hirsch report called for stricter enforcement of the one anti-smoking law already on the books, additional restrictions, more government educational campaigns against smoking and an increase in the cost of cigarettes.

Giving in somewhat to all this pressure, Chirac told the French National Assembly on Thursday that the government will increase the price of cigarettes by 10% on April 1. But that would still give France one of Europe’s cheapest cigarette prices.

Commenting on the Hirsch report in a newspaper article, Dr. Jean Bernard and Dr. Maurice Tubiana, two prominent medical professors, estimated that smoking-related deaths and illness cost French society about $7.5 billion in health care and loss of productivity every year--three times what the government receives in revenue from smokers.

But arguments about the financial cost of smoking, the writers acknowledged, do not get very far in France. When a French finance minister was told a few years ago that his treasury paid out three francs for every franc it took in from smoking, Bernard and Tubiana said, the minister reportedly corrected his critic by replying: “I get the one franc. It’s my successor who will have to pay out the three francs.”

Campaign Delayed

After her first fumbling response to the question on television, Minister of Health Barzach spoke out forcefully in later speeches and television appearances and promised to launch an anti-smoking campaign. But the campaign, originally scheduled for November, has been postponed until January, a delay that allowed the government tobacco company and the rest of the French tobacco industry to launch its half-million-dollar campaign first.

The industry’s campaign is a subtle one, for it preaches mainly tolerance. “He who sows intolerance harvests the storm,” the advertisements say, adding, “Smokers, nonsmokers, liberty is reciprocal.” Industry officials insist that they are trying to help nonsmokers as well as smokers, and some of the campaign literature urges smokers to take the first step toward tolerance by asking permission of nonsmokers before lighting up.

But it is obvious that the industry is most concerned about protecting smokers from the kind of restrictions that have become common in the United States and in European countries such as Finland and Sweden. Almost all the examples of intolerance cited at the launching of the campaign involved anti-smoking laws and practices in the United States. Moreover, the campaign was launched in a crowded, hazy room filled with ostentatious smokers showing no tolerance toward nonsmokers sitting near them.

Introduced in 1560

Smoking has a long history in France. In fact, nicotiana, the Latin word for tobacco, and nicotine, a poisonous substance in tobacco smoke, take their names from Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal in the 16th Century. Finding some leaves of tobacco from the New World in Lisbon in 1560, Nicot sent them to Catherine de Medici, the queen mother and regent of France, and thereby won historical credit for introducing tobacco into France.

A hundred years later, tobacco had become so popular in France that Moliere opened his play “Don Juan” with an ode to the leaf. “No matter what Aristotle and all philosophers say,” said Don Juan’s valet, Sganarelle, “there is nothing like tobacco: It is the passion of honest people, and he who lives without tobacco is not worthy of living. Not only does it rejuvenate and purge the human brain, but it instructs souls with virtue, and one learns from it how to become an honest man.”

Soon after Moliere wrote these lines, Jean Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s comptroller-general of finance, created a state monopoly to control all tobacco production and distribution in France. The monopoly was broken up by the French Revolution, but Napoleon re-established it in 1811. SEITA, the national tobacco company, is a direct descendant of that monopoly.

Strong Cigarettes

Until the last decade or so, France was known throughout the world as the manufacturer of Gauloises and Gitanes--dark, strong cigarettes laden with nicotine and tars. Tough French movie heroes invariably spoke with one of these rough cigarettes dangling from their lower lips. Almost everyone in France smoked them, for SEITA’s monopoly was once absolute.

But after 1971, the rules of the Common Market forced France to allow the free importation of cigarettes manufactured anywhere in the market. American companies such as R. J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris took advantage of this by setting up factories in West Germany and the Netherlands. By 1986, French-made cigarettes accounted for no more than 58% of the market. And, to meet a new French taste, SEITA had to manufacture light cigarettes as well.

Under the French political system, consumer groups, like most private organizations, do not have much influence on legislation, and France’s one anti-smoking law did not result from any public outcry. It was powered instead by the courage and conviction of an admired and respected politician, Simone Veil, who served as minister of health in the administration of President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. She introduced and managed passage of the legislation in 1976.

Ads Restricted

The Veil law prohibits any advertising of cigarettes except for a small quota for each brand in the written press, requires every package of cigarettes to state the nicotine and tar content and carry a notice that “abuse of smoking is dangerous,” and prohibits smoking in buses, subways, elevators, schools and public places with limited ventilation.

The legislation ended cigarette advertising on television and put an end to smoking in many public conveyances and in movie theaters, but it has been difficult to enforce in many ways. Even schools and hospitals continue to tolerate smoking. And manufacturers made the warning label about smoking abuse on the side of a pack so tiny that it can barely be read.

French society has no puritanical streak. Regulations for the most part cannot be enforced by moral pressure alone. Many people refuse to accept limitations on their freedom unless they fear that they will be punished for defying them.

In the case of the anti-smoking legislation, smokers and the tobacco industry soon found that it was not so difficult to ignore or circumvent the law. The rest of the government obviously does not have as much enthusiasm for the legislation as Veil. There is little or no punishment.

Law Circumvented

The most blatant example is the ease with which the tobacco industry circumvents the quota on magazine advertising. The cigarette manufacturers simply sell matches in boxes that are almost identical in design to packs of cigarettes. Match advertising thus became a subterfuge for cigarette advertising.

So, when the limit on advertising Gitanes cigarettes has been reached, Gitanes matches are advertised instead. The ad is the same; the box shown is practically the same. Only a painstaking reader would realize that Gitanes matches, not Gitanes cigarettes, are being advertised.

One of the main offenders is SEITA. In 1978, Veil denounced what she called “the suicidal attitude of SEITA, searching by all ways to bypass the law to sell its products.”

SEITA may not be violating Veil’s anti-smoking law, but there is little doubt that it violates the law’s spirit. That, of course, is a rather odd role for an agency of the French government. But it is also a significant reflection of the ambivalent attitude of France toward smoking.

Times researcher Alice Sedar contributed to this story.