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French Tobacconists Sabotage Cameras and Dump Carrots to Derail Plain Cigarette Packs

Angry tobacco vendors in France spent the week protesting a bill to introduce neutral cigarette packaging, insisting that it threatened the viability of their profession.

by Pierre-Louis Caron
Jul 23 2015, 9:40pm

Image via Danielclauzier/Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, French senators rejected plans to introduce standardized cigarette packs that would have seen all cigarettes packed the same way, irrespective of their brand.

The controversial measure was part of a wider health bill introduced by French Health Minister Marisol Touraine. Despite the bill having been approved by the French National Assembly on April 3, the socialist government's "plain pack" proposals failed to convince the Senate, which is dominated by the opposition right.

Speaking after the Senate's decision, Touraine announced that the government would seek to reopen the "neutral" cigarette pack debate in September.

Angry French tobacconists had spent the week protesting the bill, arguing that plans to introduce plain cigarette packaging would adversely impact sales and threaten the viability of their profession. To underscore the loss of revenue they said the faced, some undertook creative means to deprive their local government of some public revenue.

In the southwestern French department of Gers, protesters covered almost all of the district's traffic speed cameras with trash bags on Monday night. The regional tobacconists' union has said that local businesses are struggling to compete with competitive cigarette prices in neighboring Spain and Andorra.

"Game on, Marisol Touraine!"

"By covering the speed cameras with trash bags, we've attacked a symbol, because, like cigarettes, speed cameras bring in a lot of money to the state," Jean-Marc Pascolini, president of the Gers tobacconists' union, told VICE News. Pascolini said that he was relieved that the plan had been dropped, at least for now, and insisted that tobacconists would continue to protest the government's "absurd" reforms to cut smoking.

"You don't fight tobacco by killing those who sell it," he said.

Covering traffic cameras was just the start of odd tobacconist resistance. In Paris, disgruntled tobacconists dumped four tons of carrots outside of the ruling Socialist Party's headquarters on Wednesday. "Carrot" is the nickname given to the red cylindrical sign that French tobacconists are required by law to hang outside their stores. Introduced in 1906, the sign is designed to resemble a bundle of tobacco leaves, which used to be ground up for the customer.

According to French radio station Europe 1, the Socialist Party re-gifted the carrots to the Republican Guard as feed for its 470-horse cavalry regiment.

France's tobacco outlets collected 14 billion euros ($15 billion) in taxes for the French Treasury in 2014 — a key argument for those who are against standardized packaging.

But according to a 2013 report by the French Court of Auditors, which audits government institutions, France spends 47 billion euros ($52 billion) a year campaigning against smoking, treating smoking-related illnesses, and in losses linked to premature deaths — the equivalent of 772 euros ($850) per person.

In a statement released Thursday, the Senate said that the its Social Affairs Commission had rejected the plan for a plain pack because of the government's "inability to obtain from our [European] neighbors a more cooperative and less opportunistic tax policy."

According to tobacconists, 26.3 percent of cigarettes smoked in France are purchased through "parallel markets" — including foreign markets like Andorra, a micro-state nestled between Spain and France in the eastern Pyrenees Mountains.

Instead of a plain packet, the Senate approved an amendment requiring that 65 percent of the surface of a cigarette pack be given over to health warnings.

Touraine told French radio France Info that she wasn't "surprised" by the Senate's decision, and that the government would submit a new amendment "to underline its commitment" to the fight against tobacco addiction.

"This is the neutral cigarette pack in France."

Australia introduced standardized packaging towards the end of 2012, and according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the introduction of plain packs has reduced smoking by 12.8 percent in the country. Ireland and the UK adopted similar legislation back in March.

According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills around 6 million people each year. At the start of July, there were about a billion smokers worldwide, 80 percent of whom live in some of the world's poorest countries.

Pascolini said that tobacconists have scheduled further protests for September 7 and 8.

"We tobacconists, we're nice guys. So far we've been nice," he said. "But we want to be sure we're heard."

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c
Image via Danielclauzier/Wikimedia Commons