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'Cigarette police' deployed in France to enforce smoking ban

London Independent | January 30, 2007 
John Lichfield

From this week, a legion of 175,000 "cigarette police" will patrol and sniff schools, factories, offices and other "public spaces" across France to enforce a tough, new law against smoking. At least this is the theory. After years of lax enforcement of existing laws, it remains to be seen how strictly the new rules are imposed.

Restaurants and bars, in which smoking has theoretically been banned since 1991, have been given a further 11 months' grace until January next year. Smoking in almost all other enclosed spaces open to the public will be banned from Thursday. Offenders face a fine of €68 (£48). Similar restrictions have already been imposed in Ireland, Spain and Sweden and will take effect in England in June.

There are some doubts about the legal basis of the French law, imposed by government decree and ministerial circular rather than by act of parliament. The government could not trust its parliamentary supporters to anger smoking voters by passing tough restrictions in an election year. All the same, the law represents an important stage in the conversion of France to an officially anti-smoking country. Until two decades ago, the French state, which held the monopoly for producing and importing tobacco, took a relatively relaxed view of smoking.

In recent years, tobacco taxes have been pushed up by 40 per cent, bringing a packet of 20 to around €4, one of the highest prices on the continent. The number of smokers fell at first but is now rising again, especially among teenagers. About one in three French people over 12 smokes regularly.

The French Health Minister, Xavier Bertrand, has bowed to pressure from health professionals and the threat of law suits from passive smokers. Smoking is held responsible for 66,000 deaths a year in France, including 6,000 people who had never smoked.

"From 1 February, no one should have to put up with smoke puffed out by others," M. Simon said. "This is the end of the enforced co-habitation between smokers and non-smokers."

In theory smoking in all French bars and restaurants has been banned since 1991, except for small, designated "smoking" areas. In practice, the law has been turned upside down with almost entire premises marked as " smoking areas". This has not been challenged by the government, but from next January all this will change.

The power to enforce the law has been given to the police and gendarmerie but also to the transport police and an army of inspectors. They will have the power to issue "contravention" documents, like parking tickets, to offenders. The government hopes that the law will, in fact, mostly be enforced by the moral pressure of non-smokers. The detail of where smoking is banned is not in the decree but in a ministerial circular. Lawyers have warned that this is legally dubious and open to challenge.

Today the European Commission will call on all 27 EU countries to follow suit by barring smoking from public places. Markos Kyprianou, European commissioner for health, will launch a discussion paper which will raise the possibility of pan-European legislation - though member states will decide whether to outlaw smoking or take milder measures to discourage it.

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