PARIS (AFP) – Part one of a French ban on smoking in public places comes into force on Thursday, covering workplaces, schools and hospitals and setting the clock ticking for smoke-filled cafes and bars which have until next January to kick the habit.
Smokers will now have to stub out on the doorstep of shops, sports clubs and entertainment venues that still allowed smoking, while “smokers’ corners” in school staff rooms and hospitals will vanish entirely.
Panicked owners of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and casinos — anticipating a loss of custom in a country where almost one in three adults is a smoker — have been given a year to prepare for the minor earthquake.
“From February 1, no one should be forced to breathe other people’s smoke,” Health Minister Xavier Bertrand said last week. “I am sure that in future our children will find it inconceivable that we used to smoke in offices or schools.”
Unruly smokers will face fines of 68 euros (88 dollars) for lighting up in the wrong place, while business owners will be fined 135 euros.
Companies can choose to provide hermetically-sealed smoking rooms, with powerful extractor fans, but few are expected to install the costly systems, preferring to let staff puff away on the pavement and offer them advice on how to quit.
The rare exceptions to the new rules are places considered as “substitutes for the home” — such as hotels or retirement homes.
The government has also said it will be lenient towards hospital patients with mental illnesses, who would not understand a sudden ban, or those already struggling to give up alcohol or drug addiction.
The February 1 ban is largely seen as a test run ahead of next year’s complete ban on smoking in restaurants and bars — a cultural earthquake in a country of coffee- and cigarette-lovers.
But some restaurants have already taken the bull by the horns, as in the southern city of Marseille where a growing number are going completely smoke-free well ahead of the legal deadline.
“We felt the time was right,” said Stephane Pandeli, who runs a seafood restaurant, Toinou, in the city centre. He said he had not lost any custom, and even gained some as non-smokers flocked back.
“Eventually, people won’t have a choice anyway. They haven’t stopped catching the train or plane since they banned smoking,” he said.
Around the corner, the Shambala oriental cafe has always been smoke-free. Its owner, Eric Martin, said he has a loyal customer base of “young women who come here when they’re pregnant, then with the children”, to enjoy the fragrance of tea and incense without the smell of smoke.
The Cafe des Epices, a restaurant perched in Marseille’s historic Panier neighbourhood, is booked up a week in advance despite its smoking ban.
“We do a lot of work with spices. Cigarettes affect the taste buds — people wouldn’t get as much out of the chef’s work” if people were smoking, said owner Eddy Reignoux.
But he admits the mild climate in Marseille — as in Italy where a ban on smoking in restaurants has been an overall success — is a help: smokers can comfortably nip outside with a glass of wine for an open-air cigarette.
Overall, recent figures show the number of French smokers to be rising, especially among the young. Smokers now account for 32 percent of 15- to 75-year-olds, and almost one in two in the 18 to 25 age bracket.
Smoking is thought to kill 66,000 people in France each year, while passive smoking claims some 6,000 lives — 1,000 of them non-smokers, the rest smokers who also breathe the cigarette smoke of others.
The anti-smoking decree, adopted by the government last November, goes one step further than a 1991 law that banned cigarettes in many places including train stations and airports, but still allowed designated smoking areas.