Electronic Cigarette
In France, people can try the electronic cigarette for free. Reuters

Smoking is as inherent a part of French society and culture as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, escargot, high fashion and champagne. Not even legislation by the government's health authorities to ban public smoking and educate people about the dangers of tobacco consumption have put a dent in France's insatiable craving for cigarettes, particularly the famous Gaulloises and Gitanes brands.

But perhaps fewer Frenchmen and women will choose to light up their smokes following a sharp rise in cigarette prices – on July 1, the cost of a pack of cigarettes will increase to new all-time high prices of between 6.50 and 7 euros ($8.70 to $9.30) for the most popular brands (almost triple the cost in 2000).

Indeed, Marisol Touraine, the minister of social affairs and health under the Socialist administration of Francois Hollande, has made tackling cigarette smoking one of her principal campaigns. “Tobacco kills 73,000 people every year [in France],” Touraine told French radio station France Info. “There are too many young people who smoke. ... Pregnant women smoke too much.”

Compounding the ire of French smokers, on top of higher cigarette pack prices, the government is raising taxes on tobacco as part of a plan to finance the country’s Social Security program. Touraine characterized these measures as an effective way to improve the public's health, not as a ploy for the financially strapped state to generate much-needed revenues. “I do not want cigarettes to make money for the state,” she said. “This is a health issue and it’s not simply a matter of juggling taxes.”

Health care advocates are elated. “If the pack costs 7 euros, it is good news,” Bertrand Dautzenberg, president of the French Office for Smoking Prevention, told Agence France-Presse. “It is a psychological threshold.”

Not surprisingly, some French smokers are less than enamored with these developments. Matthieu Perrin, a 23-year-old who started smoking at 17, says that despite the imminent increase in prices, he will not stop smoking and believes that the “public health” issue is just an excuse. “As far as I am concerned, I think [tobacco] is a drug and that it should be banned,” he conceded. “But the French government needs the money from the cigarettes and shows inconsistency in its behavior, because at the same time they pretend this rise is to prevent people from smoking.”

Cigarette manufacturers may also be hurt by the price hike, as they are likely to see sales drop. In fact, during the first three months of this year, the volume of cigarettes sold in France has dropped by 8.6 percent over the year-ago period. Tobacconists are also in danger. Since 2004, thousands have already been forced to close their doors, especially in small towns and villages. Last month, a group of tobacconists came to Paris to protest the coming price increases.

The French government has been campaigning against cigarette smoking ever since the Evin law of 1991 (named after MP Claude Évin, who advocated for their prohibition), which forbade tobacconists to sell cigarettes to people under 18 or to advertise tobacco products. In 2008, the government finally banned smoking in public places, including in offices, schools, government buildings, railway and bus stations, museums and restaurants. A fine of 500 euros for violations was mandated.

Despite these bans and public education on the risks of tobacco, more 14 million Frenchmen smoke in a country of some 66 million. Amandine Joué started smoking when she was 13. She said that the first time she lit a cigarette she just to wanted be like everybody else. But soon, she became addicted to nicotine. “I used to lie to my mom and ask her for money,” said Joué, 22. “I would say that it was to buy candy. At this time it was easy because people did not care about the age restrictions.” Joué also said the new price increase on cigarettes is wholly unfair, but that it will not dissuade her from smoking. She found another clever way to make smoking affordable -- she buys the different parts and then assembles a whole cigarette by herself.

Another solution for cash-strapped French smokers involves driving across the borders to Belgium or Spain, where cigarettes are usually cheaper. “When we have the possibility to get cigarettes at the border, we do not hesitate for a second,” said Annie Muller, 29. “I tell my cousin to get me cartons of cigarettes when she goes to Belgium. On a carton, we usually save around 20 euros [$26.70].”

About one-fourth of cigarettes consumed in France are believed to have originated in foreign countries (both through legal purchases and contraband smuggling), despite the border police's efforts to monitor and control the number of packs a person brings back into the country. However, in March the European Court of Justice ruled that the French government was violating the free circulation of goods within the European Union by restricting cross-border cigarette purchases.

Alas, RFI reported that five years after the public smoking ban, the number of French smokers has actually increased. Since 2005, the percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 75 who smoke has gone from 28 percent to 30 percent. "The biggest problem with the French prohibition is the lack of control,” Maria Cardenas of France's Non-Smokers' Rights told RFI.

Part of the problem has to do with lax enforcement of smoking laws – two-thirds of people surveyed said they seen people smoke in places where it is ostensibly banned and one-third said their work colleagues light up.

Cardenas added that such bans are more effective in other parts of the EU where enforcement is taken more seriously. “For example, in Ireland, the ban was followed by more than 25,000 inspections in the first year. And in France, there were only 600 inspections,” she noted. “So there is a big difference in the political application of the smoking ban.”

Nonetheless, Cardenas insists that attitudes in France are slowly changing. “Now, most people accept that it's not normal to be exposed to second-hand smoke in public places, and that's the most important," she said.

Electronic cigarettes, which deliver nicotine though a vaporized puff and are a popular way to circumvent anti-tobacco laws, are the government's next target. Touraine has already announced that she would do everything she can to have the new à la mode “toy” banned from public spaces.

Reuters reported that some half-million people in France smoke "e-cigarettes." "This is no ordinary product because it encourages mimicking and could promote [people] taking up smoking," said Touraine at a news conference.