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French MPs' lunch with big tobacco causes a stir

Published: 03 Jun 2013 12:05 GMT+02:00

Reports of the €10,000 meal come after French health minister Marisol Touraine announced last week she would put forward a bill to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public, enclosed spaces.

The timing of the dinner has some French observers questioning the state's relationship to tobacco vendors, especially at a time when the tobacco industry is in transition.

Tax hikes on tobacco in recent years, calls in some quarters for 'plain packaging' in France, and a looming ban on electronic cigarettes, provide a heady political backdrop for the opulent meal. 

French weekly Le Journal de Dimanche (JDD) reported on Sunday that tobacco giant British American Tobacco (BAT) had treated several French deputies to frogs' legs, veal and top-notch Bourgougne wine at the Chez Francoise restaurant in Paris last Wednesday.

The luncheon, hosted by BAT France President Soraya Zoueihid, was topped off with Cuban cigars, and added up to a bill of around €10,000.

The deputies (and one Senator) - among them André Santini, Patrick Balkany, François Sauvadet, Jean-Claude Lenoir, Odile Saugues and former junior budget minister  Dominique Bussereau - are members of the parliamentary Cuban cigar club.

The newspaper also noted that Galdéric Sabatier, from the finance ministry, was one of those in attendance at Wednesday’s lunch. Sabatier is third in command at the customs administration, which fixes tobacco prices in France.

Despite the setting, however, conversation went far beyond the culinary, according to JDD.

Zoueihid allegedly discussed “the need to have balanced and coherent [tobacco] regulations” with deputies who look set to vote soon on a bill which would ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public.

BAT counts cigarette brands such as Lucky Strike, Vogue and Dunhill in its stable, but has also made its own forays into the electronic cigarette market. 

Last week a spokesman from London-based market intelligence firm Euromonitor International told The Local a ban on electronic cigarettes in public would be “highly damaging” to the growing electronic cigarette industry, a major rival to traditional tobacco.

JDD noted that the invite from BAT contradicted an anti-tobacco initiative from the World Health Organization (WHO), which France has signed.

The accord maintains that "the state must guard against politicians being influenced by the interests of the tobacco industry".

Socialist deputy Odile Saugues told the newspaper that the lunch was part of a relationship with BAT in which the giant tobacco company discusses tobacco-related issues.

”BAT maintains its relationships in order to weigh up and share ideas,” Saugues told JDD.

”But that doesn't change anything, I vote in favour of all price increases (of tobacco products).”

Public servants familiar to the relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers, meanwhile, told JDD that the industry and the state have reached an equilibrium of sorts over the price of cigarettes.

Since 2009, the French state has made a packet of cigarettes 30 cents more expensive each year, producing a 4.5 percent decrease in sales, which the tobacco companies have so far made up for with the increased prices.

”Above all, this level allows the state not to lose its fiscal income,” an anonymous public servant told the French weekly.

News of the extravagant lunch broke just days after Health Minister Marisol Touraine confirmed that the French government will seek to outlaw the use of electronic cigarettes in public.

Around half a million French people are estimated to use electronic cigarettes as a way of weening themselves off traditional tobacco.

People can freely use them in bars and restaurants, wheretraditional smoking is banned as well as at work.

The battery powered,pen-sized products contain liquid nicotine that is turned into a vapour which is then inhaled.

“The e-cigarette is not an ordinary product,” the minister said last week.

“Weneed to apply the same measures as there are for tobacco. That means making sure it cannot be smoked in public places, that its sale is restricted to over 18s and that firms are not allowed to advertise the products,” she added.

A representative from BAT France was not available for comment at the time of writing.

Staff reporter (news@thelocal.com)

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