French light into smoking curbs Disdain for health warnings,bans on cigarettes is widespread

October 08, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Paris Bureau of The Sun

QUIMPER, France -- "Defense de Fumer" says the sign in the waiting room at Laennec Hospital's lung unit here. "No Smoking"

"Go to hell," seems to be the Gallic response, judging by the enormous and much-used ashtray in the same room.

That's pretty much the French attitude on the dangers of smoking. Everywhere, people are smoking as casually as they did in the United States before the surgeon general began warning of the dangers of smoking.

In crowded French bars and restaurants, people light up without even glancing at their neighbors through the swirling cigarette smoke, let alone asking permission.

That makes France a happy place for cigarette manufacturers, including the U.S. manufacturers being vilified at home. So it is no surprise that U.S. tobacco giants Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds called in their lawyers when a group of junior high school students in this city in France's northwestern corner targeted the top five brands -- including Marlboro and Camel -- for a 15-day anti-smoking campaign earlier this year.

The posters they produced were downright gruesome. The tobacco companies sought a summary court order requiring that the posters be taken down immediately. The posters, which had been printed and put up by the city of Quimper, reproduced or resembled the cigarette packages of the five brands, and the companies argued that their trademarks had been violated.

The students claimed that their right to freedom of expression and criticism was more important.

Whatever the outcome of the case, the legal wrangling underscores Europe's importance as a bastion of guilt-free smoking at a time when cigarette smokers are turning into pariahs in the United States.

Many in France are surprised and amused. "To see the multinationals of the tobacco industry ranged against five junior high school students in Quimper, here at the end of the world," said Alain Le Quernec, the graphic artist and teacher at Brizeux Junior High School. "If I had planned it that way, I couldn't have done better."

Each poster carried the slogan "Publicity Kills."

The companies initially won a summary judgment banning the posters, and a symbolic 1-franc fine was levied for violating the trademark of each of the companies.

But the French National Committee Against Tobacco Abuse recently won a reversal of the court's decision against Philip Morris and says it will reissue the posters.

Frank Farnel, director of corporate affairs for Philip Morris France, said the company will appeal.

"They used our logo, our package,the same writing," Mr. Farnel said. "It's obviously an infringement of our trademark."

Brenda Follmer, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco International, said the company brought suit not to block the anti-smoking movement but because Quimper and the students had violated the Camel trademark.

For the tobacco companies, the stakes in this cathedral city of 50,000 were high.

Since 1985, U.S. cigarette exports have increased fivefold. Of U.S. companies' total tobacco revenues of $100 billion last year, $60 billion came from foreign markets, largely Europe and Asia, according to John Bloom, an international expert on smoking control at the Washington-based Advocacy Institute.

A recent World Health Organization study found a direct link between advertising and smoking trends. A total ban on cigarette advertising in such countries as Norway and Finland was accompanied by a decline in smoking of 1.6 percent a year. In Turkey and Japan, where there were no restrictions on such advertising, smoking increased 1.7 percent a year, WHO reported.

In such countries as France and Belgium, restrictions on advertising have been followed by a decline in smoking of 0.4 percent a year.

"Europe is still considered a healthy market for American cigarettes, as is South Asia," said Joann Schellenbach, spokeswoman of the American Cancer Society. "Maybe the tobacco companies also felt the climate in France would support them."

Anti-smoking efforts have yet to be taken seriously here in France.

Many French people, whether they smoke or not, appear to consider smoking an inalienable, ultimately personal pleasure.

Jean-Jacques Larzul, chief of pulmonary services at Quimper Hospital and local head of the Committee Against Respiratory Illnesses, said he was surprised to see signs in California warning of prison or heavy fines for smoking in certain places. He said he fantasized briefly about importing such methods to France but added, "Of course, it would mean a revolution."

However, France is scheduled to outlaw all tobacco advertising in 1993. Currently, only television ads and billboards are banned outright.

At the RTL radio station, the English-language department recently went smoke-free after a long battle.

Brett Kline, an American reporter there, remembered coming in early in the morning to toss all the ashtrays in the garbage. The smokers responded by using the metal tape-reel cases for ashtrays.

"There were signs up that said 'No Smoking,' but, this being France, people still lit up," he said. "I'd tell them, 'Hey, the sign says no smoking,' and they'd say, ' - - - - you, I'm not smoking.' "

In trying to get the French to accept limits on their freedom to smoke, the anti-smoking movement knows it must be cautious.

To ban smoking at work without providing comfortable smoking lounges, for example, would invite disaster, said Albert Hirsch, chief of pulmonary services at St. Louis Hospital in Paris and leader of the anti-smoking movement.

"If it were too rigid, it would never be applied, and the law will be made to look ridiculous," said Dr. Hirsch.

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