Wednesday, October 04, 2006

French panel wants to end public smoking

By JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press Writer Tue Oct 3, 7:54 PM ET

PARIS - French lawmakers are trying to make France's smoky cafes a thing of the past. A parliamentary panel called Tuesday for a government ban on smoking in enclosed public areas within a year — and floated the idea of "hermetically sealed" smoking rooms for those who want to light up.

Although just a recommendation that leaves government with the final say, a ban would send a shock through France's smoker-friendly culture where cigarettes have long been identified with cool, and where smoky bistros are still redoubts of Paris' intelligentsia.

Even the French presidency's Web site shows a photo of a young
President Jacques Chirac in a James Dean-like pose with a cigarette in his mouth.

Health Minister Xavier Bertrand has said smoking-related illness kills 66,000 people every year in France. An estimated 5,000 of those deaths are attributed to second-hand smoke, he said.

"The status quo is not acceptable," said an extract of the parliamentary panel's report, which was to be made public Wednesday.

The government is expected to decide by mid-October on the panel request for a ban in cafes, offices, schools, restaurants, airports, train stations and other enclosed public spaces by next September.

In a symbolic gesture, the president of the parliament's lower house said its tobacco shop will close Jan. 1. Jean-Louis Debre said the chamber should go further and set an example by outlawing smoking in its building.

If the ban takes effect, France would become the latest European country to join the anti-smoking bandwagon — Ireland, Spain, Italy and Britain have adopted similar measures.

In the U.S., 17 states and at least 474 municipalities have enacted smoking bans in restaurants, bars and other workplaces, according to the California-based Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. Hawaii begins a ban in November, and Washington, D.C., is going smokeless in January.

The French panel advised that the government adopt a ban by governmental decree, because parliament's "heavy load" of business in coming months may make it difficult to legislate. Bertrand has said he backs a decree to avoid any political fallout for lawmakers with elections looming next spring.

The panel also floated the idea of partitioned zones for smokers. It described the areas as "hermetically sealed spaces equipped with smoke-extraction systems and strict health rules." But in places like restaurants, table service would not be allowed inside them to protect the health of waiters.

Socialist lawmaker Claude Evin, an anti-smoking crusader who headed the panel, said details of such smoking rooms remained to be worked out — but at first glance they appeared "virtually unfeasible."

Evin and other supporters of the ban fear it being issued by decree would carry less weight than a law passed by the entire parliament. Many hoteliers, bistro owners and restaurateurs vowed a fight. Opponents want some exceptions — such as exemptions for bars that sell tobacco products.

"We oppose a total ban, and we will remain opposed," said Francis Attrazic, vice president of the French hospitality industry association UMIH.

"It will have huge financial consequences," he added.

On the streets of Paris, even some nonsmokers say a ban would go too far.

"Smokers have rights, too," said Rhamzi Ayache, a 60-year-old computer technician. "They must find a way to coexist. There can be two kinds of cafes."

Others like Natalie Ody, a nonsmoker whose young son is asthmatic, applauded the proposal, saying a ban would help them breathe easier in Paris restaurants.

"For him, it's good news," said the 41-year-old dental assistant, referring to her son. "If somebody's smoking at the next table, we're smoking too."

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