Global Economics

Ooh La La! A Smoke-Free France


Even in a country known for its love of liberty—and smoking—the Jan. 1 ban on lighting up in restaurants and bars has been met, mostly, with approval

On a gray January morning in Paris, Sebastien Jauny huddles against the door of a café in the rain, shivering in his long black overcoat, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The ban on smoking in restaurants and bars has been in effect only one day, but Jauny, himself a manager of a bar a few doors down on chic Boulevard Saint-Germain, is already fed up—and freezing.

"It violates human liberty," Jauny exclaims, not to mention the timing could have been better. England, for instance, chose to put its new antismoking law into effect in sunny July. "But it's a good thing. Normally, I smoke three packs a day. Yesterday, I smoked only 10 [cigarettes]."

Jauny's grudging acceptance of the ban on this quintessentially French pleasure typifies the blasé attitude of smokers here, resigned quite literally to suck it up as their country changes around them. "I do appreciate eating without breathing smoke; at least you enjoy the taste of food," says Lina Ibrahim, a 25-year-old consultant who has smoked since age 16. "Besides, I hate coming home with my clothes and hair smelling of smoke."

Keeping Customers on the Sidewalks

Of the estimated 20% of the French population that smokes—down from 45% some 15 years ago—half die from smoking-related illnesses, according to the Health Ministry. Polls show two-thirds of people support the ban, a high figure in a country better known for resisting change. The law took effect Jan. 1, with a one-day grace period of nonenforcement, the final phase of a 2006 prohibition on smoking in public places and offices mandated under former President Jacques Chirac (BusinessWeek.com, 2/2/06). Smokers caught in violation of the law face fines of up to $662, while business owners who permit smoking on their premises may be charged as much as $1,100.

Most criticism emanates from the countryside, where a bar might be the only place locals can socialize, and from owners of hookah (water-pipe) bars and other small establishments who fear a financial blow. "To pull through economically, our clients must be at the counters, not on the sidewalks," René Le Pape, president of the Confederation of Tobacconists, said in a statement New Year's Eve.

Gerard Audureau, president of the group Rights of Non-Smokers, says such worry is unwarranted. An October, 2007 poll by researcher TNS Direct (TNS.L) of 800 restaurants that had chosen to go smoke-free on Feb. 1 of that year—when a ban went into effect for public areas such as train stations, airports, and government buildings—found just 7% of establishments had experienced a decline in sales, while 36% reported business had improved.

No Big Hit for Tobacco

Mikaël Sonntag, a waiter at Brasserie Vagenende on Boulevard Saint-Germain, expects the ban to bring in more customers, such as Marie-Hélène Ollier, a 53-year-old marketing executive who, after kicking her 23-year, two-pack-a-day habit, avoided restaurants and cafés because the smell became unbearable.

What about the effect on tobacco companies? Franco-Spanish company Altadis (ALDS.PA), which makes the iconic Gauloises and Gitanes brands, is set to be taken over (BusinessWeek.com, 3/15/07) before the end of this month by Britain's Imperial Tobacco (ITY). Analyst Jonathan Leinster at investment bank UBS (UBS) figures Imperial's French business could take a 3%-to-4% hit, but the stock is up 30% since the merger was announced even though investors knew the ban was on its way. National indoor smoking bans typically have provoked an initial drop in cigarette consumption of about 10%, followed by a slow return to 3% to 5% below pre-ban levels.

Free Pocket Ashtrays

Movements to prohibit smoking became à la mode across Europe after Ireland outlawed smoking in pubs, restaurants, and offices in 2004. Eight other nations including Spain, Italy, and Britain have since prohibited smoking in eateries—bans in Portugal and parts of Germany also went into effect Jan. 1—and still other countries have outlawed smoking in the workplace. Studies have shown that smoke-free environments curtailed heart attacks in Scotland (BusinessWeek.com, 9/21/07), reduced indoor pollutants by 83% in Ireland (BusinessWeek.com, 4/18/07), and even, amazingly enough, improved the condition of accordions and other bellows instruments (BusinessWeek.com, 9/28/07).

Though the ubiquitous image of Parisians philosophizing over coffee and cigarettes will become a thing of the past, efforts have been made to dull the blow. The Dec. 29 issue of Le Figaro magazine features doctored photographs of famous smokers such as Charles de Gaulle, Serge Gainsbourg, and Brigitte Bardot dragging instead on long-stemmed buttercups. And Paris authorities plan to distribute 10,000 "pocket ashtrays" to smokers puffing away outside. C'est la vie.

Fishbein is a reporter in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau .

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