by Carole Landry
Sat Dec 22, 8:58 PM ET
PARIS (AFP) - Smokers in France are enjoying their last leisurely puffs on a cigarette over coffee or a glass of rouge before cafes, restaurants and nightclubs join a nationwide ban on smoking on January 1.
Eleven months after smoking was outlawed in workplaces, schools, hospitals and shops, the ban is extending to bars and bistrots, with some owners predicting the demise of France's lively cafe culture.
When some of the 13.5 million French smokers return home from their New Year's revelry, they will not be able to pop into their local cafe and light up over a cup of espresso, Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot warned last week.
"The ban has been ready for a year and everyone knows that it is going into effect. No one can say they were taken by surprise," said Bachelot, who has vowed a "zero-tolerance" approach toward offenders.
While the ban kicks in on January 1, police say they are in no hurry to hand out fines to smokers hours after they ring in the New Year, suggesting that the ban will be gradually enforced.
Supporters of the anti-tobacco drive point to France's smooth transition to smoke-free workplaces in February as a sign that the country has become more health-conscious.
But some business groups representing cafe and restaurant owners are up in arms, demanding that restrictions be eased, especially in the countryside where banning smoking at the local "bar-tabac" is tantamount to an attack on the French lifestyle.
"It's going to be a real mess," said Rene Le Pape, a cafe owner in Brittany who is also president of the Confederation of Tobacconists, which represents about 30,000 members.
"What are we supposed to do? Call the gendarme when a loyal customer of 30 years lights up a cigarette?" said Le Pape. "This law is inapplicable."
Last month Le Pape led a march by thousands of cafe and restaurant owners in Paris to protest the smoking ban, but the government has stuck to its position that it will go ahead without exemptions.
Laurent Sotty, vice president of the main industry group UMIH, said many of 80,000 cafe, restaurant and bar owners that he represents fear they will lose a large part of their clientele accustomed to a daily dose of nicotine and coffee.
"Lots of businesses are worried, they fear that they will have to shut down," said Sotty, who owns a nightclub in northeastern France.
"People will probably change their habits, especially in small rural establishments," he said.
"A friendly game of cards may not take place in the bar any more, but at someone's house. People just won't be going to the bistrot," said Sotty.
France's latest smoking ban comes six months after Britain decided to make its pubs smoke-free and nearly four years after Ireland became the first European country to take a tough stance on outlawing smoking in public places.
Under the French ban, smokers who light up in a public place can be fined up to 450 euros (645 dollars) while business owners may face penalties of up to 750 euros.
Staring down opposition from some cafe and bar owners, 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.
Despite the dire warnings, Gerard Audureau, president of the association for the defence of non-smokers' rights, predicts French mourning of 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."
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