By CATHERINE FIELD Herald correspondent
PARIS - France has opened several fronts against smoking, attacking the tobacco giants in the law courts and targeting their products with punitive fiscal levies and a shock campaign to ostracise them.
President Jacques Chirac left many bemused when in March he declared war on tobacco to combat cancer.
In the land of the Gauloise and the Gitane, the smoking culture has been rooted in the psyche as a peripheral symbol of sexuality, good dining and companionship.
Even so, cracks in Big Tobacco's French fortress are starting to emerge.
In an unprecedented move, a local state-run health insurance fund in St Nazaire, a city in western France, has filed suit against four tobacco giants, demanding they reimburse it for €18.66 million ($38 million) spent to treat smoking-related illnesses.
Those targeted are the former state-owned cigarette-maker Seita, now renamed Altadis; Philip Morris, which has changed its name to Altria; JTI-Reynolds; and BAT-Rothmans.
The claim dates back to 1997 when, according to the complaint, despite an undeniable pile of scientific evidence that tobacco, as well as being harmful, was clearly addictive, the companies did nothing to warn smokers.
"Tobacco addiction is very strong, pitched about halfway between cocaine and heroin," says the fund's lawyer, Francis Caballero.
Since 1997, he says, 1023 smokers have been treated for cancers of the lungs, larynx and throat and circulatory problems. The French health service spends €7 billion annually on treating smoking-related diseases.
It is the first time that a French health insurance fund has filed suit against the tobacco industry, giving a powerful boost to a campaign that has been waged by individual long-term smokers who have fallen sick.
"This lawsuit is a gimmick, a thing without any legal value,"said BAT's defence lawyer, Pierre Lenoir. "These people are trying to place themselves on moral high ground, with high-flown moral arguments, but there is no basis in legal fact."
Altadis lawyer Pierre-Louis Dauzier said: "People are already well informed about the risks of tobacco. There is no obligation to inform someone who is already informed."
Individual claims have had publicity value but negligible results. The defendants have taken cover behind the argument that, from 1976, cigarette packets carried health warnings and so the responsibility lay with the smoker.
Tax increases on January 1 forced up the price of cigarettes by between 9 and 18 per cent, bringing a packet of Gauloises to €3.50 ($7.15) a packet.
Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei is mulling proposals to boost prices by 25 per cent a year for the next three years to help choke demand.
Laws are being framed that, if approved, would fine shopkeepers up to €7500 and jail them for up to a year if they sell cigarettes to anyone under 16.
Tobacco adverts disappeared several years ago from French billboards and newspapers, and this will be toughened with new European Union rules banning tobacco sponsorship of major sporting events.
From July 1, again in response to EU law, all cigarette packets sold in France will feature large, stark health warnings.
On the front side of the pack, at least 30 per cent of the area must have the warning "Smoking Kills" or "Smoking Seriously Harms You and Those Around You".
On the reverse side, 40 per cent must be given over to one of 14 EU-required warnings, such as "Smoking May Reduce the Blood Flow and Causes Impotence", "Smoking Can Cause Slow and Painful Death" and "Smoking Causes Ageing of the Skin".
Sales of tobacco in France have slumped to their lowest level in 20 years, but the number of smokers is relatively stable.
Among men, smokers are declining (35 per cent of adult males smoke, compared with 75 per cent in 1950).
The number of women smokers is rising alarmingly, accounting for 21 per cent of the adult female population - the highest since records began and more than three times the figure for 1968.
Herald Feature: Health
By CATHERINE FIELD Herald correspondent