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CIGARETTES

French MPs’ lunch with big tobacco causes a stir

After recent tax hikes on tobacco, and with a ban on e-cigarettes looming, eyebrows have been raised after it emerged that tobacco lobbyists recently wined and dined several French politicians in a lavish Paris luncheon.

French MPs' lunch with big tobacco causes a stir
Several French deputies and one senator were treated to a €10,000 lunch by British American Tobacco, as France mulls a ban on rival electronic cigarette. File photo: Alain Jocard/AFP

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.

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SMOKING

‘One million French people’ give up smoking in just 12 months

One million French smokers who previously sparked up everyday have given up smoking in the last 12 months, the country's Ministry of Health revealed on Monday, suggesting France's reputation as Europe's chimney might no longer be appropriate.

'One million French people' give up smoking in just 12 months
Photo: AFP
The government is claiming it as a win for their policy of escalating the price of cigarettes in increments to €10 by 2020 which they say is acting as a “deterrent” for many smokers. 
 
In 2017, 26.9 percent of 18- to 75-year-olds smoked every day, compared to 29.4 percent a year earlier. 
 
One of the key trends is the decline “among the most disadvantaged smokers” for “the first time since 2000,” the ministry said in a statement.
 
“These results are encouraging, they mark a break [with old habits],” said France's Health Minister Agnès Buzyn. “With the rise in tax [on cigarettes] we can hope that these results are sustainable.”
 
“Tobacco is a trajectory of inequality, it weighs particularly on the most disadvantaged and it gets worse,” said the minister.
 
Among the “most disadvantaged” people France, 34 percent smoked every day in 2017, against 38.8 percent in 2016 and among the unemployed, 43.5 percent smoked in 2017 compared to 49.7 percent in 2016. 
 
“On top of the rise in national tax, which has already proved fruitful, we are working at the European level on a European tax framework,” said Buzyn.
 
“In France, I remind you, tobacco kills 200 people every day (…) We know that one in two smokers will die of tobacco,” said the minister, adding that it is necessary “to continue this major fight against one of the biggest scourges of public health.”
 
Cutting down on the number of smokers in France has been a key aim of the current government since it came into power last year. 
 
In 2017, The Local reported that French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had said that with 80,000 tobacco-related deaths in France each year, “doing nothing is not an option”.
 
Tobacco “is the leading cause of preventable death, and daily use is growing among adolescents,” the premier said in a speech to parliament.
 
And in January 2017, the previous government introduced plain packaging — with its accompanying shocking photos — in the hope that it would decrease the number of French smokers.
 
The price of a packet of cigarettes has increased incrementally, with smokers currently paying an average of €7.90 euros, according to France's Ministry of Health.
 
READ ALSO:
The French and smoking: Is France really 'Europe's chimney'
French actress Brigitte Bardot lights up a film set, but times have changed since the heedy and very smoky 1960s. Photo: AFP
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