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France set to ban smoking in cafes starting January 1

Some restaurants already enforcing policy, say they now have more customers

In this file photo, a woman is seen lighting a cigarette in a cafe in Paris, France. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pledged to ban smokin...

In this file photo, a woman is seen lighting a cigarette in a cafe in Paris, France. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pledged to ban smokin...

French smokers have just a few more hours to indulge their habit in public before the country joins several of its neighbors on Wednesday in imposing a complete tobacco ban in bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
What was long regarded as a citizen's inalienable right comes to a definitive end just after the start of the New Year, and though some fear the demise of France's cherished cafe culture, few predict any serious opposition.
"The decree has been ready for more than a year. Everyone knows it is going to be applied. No one can say they've been duped," said Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot.
The outright ban follows February's prohibition of smoking in offices, schools, hospitals, stations, airports and trains, and places the country alongside Ireland, Britain, Italy and Spain in the European vanguard against public smoking.
The 11-month time-lag for "places of entertainment and conviviality" was to allow owners to install - if they wished - specially insulated and ventilated smokers' rooms, an expensive option that very few have taken up.
Technically the ban means that as the clock chimes midnight New Year's revelers will be told to stub out their cigarettes and cigars or risk a fine, but in practice the government has said there will be no attempt to enforce it on January 2.
Some cafes and restaurants have already converted to no smoking, with some claiming it has brought in more customers, and the government points to the experience in Italy where it says there was a 20 percent increase in turnover when bars and restaurants banned tobacco.
But opposition has come from groups representing tobacconists and cafe-owners, who fear smoking customers will prefer to socialize at home. They are asking for special dispensations in rural areas where the village "cafe-tabac" is part of the social fabric.
Owners of the country's 800 Middle Eastern "hubble-bubble" tea-houses are also up in arms, arguing that hookahs are less harmful than cigarettes and should be exempted.
"It is a real mess. The no-smoking signs that we were promised haven't arrived, and the instructions to the police vary from place to place," said Rene Le Pape, president of the Confederation of Tobacconists.
"Many customers are totally incredulous, because for years there's been happy co-existence between smokers and non-smokers," he said.
Under the French ban, smokers who light up in a public place can be fined up to 450 euros (US$645) while business owners may face penalties of up to 750 euros.
The government says it is tackling a major public health challenge and hopes the ban will encourage smokers to kick the habit. Tobacco is the leading cause of avoidable death in France, with more than 5,000 deaths per year from second-hand smoke and an additional 66,000 from smoking directly, according to the health ministry.
Gerard Audureau, president of the association for the defense of non-smokers' rights, said that French regret for the smoke-filled cafe will be short-lived.
"The new awareness about the dangers of smoking far outweighs all of these cultural notions about smoking," said Audureau.
In Paris's chic Latin Quarter, Christian Azzopardi declared his Coupe Chou restaurant smoke-free last year and said the move caused very few ripples among his clientele.
"It really turned out to be nothing extraordinary," said Azzopardi. "Some people sulked for a bit, but they got used to it."

Updated : 2021-04-20 13:10 GMT+08:00