PARIS — Only one restaurant in all Paris prohibits smoking. Only a handful, mostly American fast-food outlets, have nonsmoking sections. Premier Jacques Chirac rarely talks to reporters without waving a cigarette for emphasis. A stranger can always identify the high school in any Paris neighborhood by the cluster of teen-agers outside puffing awkwardly on cigarettes. The French government spends far more every year on promoting smoking than on discouraging it.
There are other countries where smoking is more prevalent. Anyone who has ever listened to the raspy voice of a bartender in Madrid or choked at breakfast in a Polish coffee shop knows that. But few countries are as puzzling as France in their attitude toward smoking.
With a highly educated society, France--the land of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, the home of some of the most sophisticated and daring research on AIDS in the world--is a laggard on the issue of smoking and health. Government officials would rather avert their eyes than get involved. Minister of Health Michele Barzach, a doctor who often lectures the nation with vigor and great charm on the prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, suddenly turned tongue-tied on television the first time she was asked about smoking.
One obvious reason for the government's hesitation is its own financial interest. A government company, SEITA (the initials in French for the National Society for Industrial Development of Cigarettes and Matches), has a monopoly on the production of cigarettes and other tobacco products in France. It also distributes almost all imported cigarettes.
This creates obvious anomalies. The government tobacco company, for example, is one of the main funders of a publicity campaign urging tolerance for smokers--at a time when the Ministry of Health has postponed its anti-smoking campaign for lack of money.
"Don't you find this situation a little comic?" a French journalist asked Francis Eyraud, the managing director of SEITA, at a recent news conference. Eyraud replied by explaining that his company is just like any other in the hunt for profits--except that it need worry about only one stockholder, the Ministry of Finance.
But the existence of the government tobacco monopoly is not the only reason why France lags in dealing with a health hazard that kills thousands in France every year. The issue is complicated as well by the weakness of consumer groups in France and by the strong, stubborn French sense of individual independence.
Defense of liberty is accepted as a valid argument for smoking even by some opponents of smoking.
"We live in a society of liberty, where a person's health is something very personal," a spokesman for the Ministry of Health said.
Dr. Norbert Bensaid, a French doctor who opposes smoking, once said, "To be an idiot and smoke is a liberty like any other."
A closer look at the smoking problem in France, in fact, reveals a good deal about French attitudes and institutions and how much they differ from those in the United States. In its most potent argument against smoking restrictions, the French tobacco industry raises the specter of the United States. The tobacco interests insist that recent regulations and pressures in the United States deny smokers the individual liberties that Frenchmen hold dear.
"We French do not want the fatal solution that has become the American way of dealing with smoking," Eyraud said.
Citing the case of 23-year-old Adrian Butler, who was stabbed to death more than a year ago in an argument after he refused to put out his cigarette on a Los Angeles bus, Jacques Sequela, the creator of the tobacco industry's latest advertising campaign, told reporters, "The only person who ever really died from smoking was that man killed in Los Angeles."
The somewhat jocular comment flies in the face of a report prepared for the Ministry of Health in September by Dr. Albert Hirsch, a professor of medicine at the University of Paris. Hirsch reported that smoking was the direct or indirect cause of 54,000 deaths in France in 1982--10% of all the nation's deaths that year.
Although the number of smokers declined from 59% of all French over 15 years old in 1953 to 38% in 1986, Hirsch reported, the consumption of cigarettes had doubled from three cigarettes a day for every adult in France in 1950 to six a day in 1985. Even more alarming, Hirsch found that 66% of all French 18-year-olds smoke and that some of them started as early as age 12.
Hirsch laid down some of the economic realities of smoking. Although SEITA lost money for several years in the 1980s, the government collected $2.3 billion in cigarette taxes in 1985. Cigarette taxes, in fact, account for 2% to 2.5% of the total revenues of the government every year.