The Gitane affair

Forget McDonald's and Coca-Cola; the French see American-style anti-tobacco lawsuits as one of the greatest threats to French culture.

Published February 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

On Dec. 8, a court in the French town of Montargis ruled that Seita, France's behemoth cigarette manufacturer and distributor, was partly responsible for the death of Richard Gourlain, who succumbed to cancer at 49 after smoking three packs of Gitanes a day for more than 30 years. His family asked for 3 million francs (about $500,000) in damages, charging Seita with not sufficiently informing consumers about the risks of smoking. Seita responded by emphasizing the personal responsibility of each smoker.

Called a "potential bomb," the unprecedented ruling underscores fears among many that the Americanization of France has reached epic proportions. Even Americans concur, depending on which side of the fence they're on. Says Michael York, a lawyer representing Philip Morris, "Tobacco-style lawsuits are probably the most shameful export of the American economy."

It's impossible to overlook the French love affair with the cigarette, which as an icon fits neatly alongside the baguette and glass of Bordeaux. The Gourlain ruling threatens to tarnish this image as clouds of jurisprudence slowly pile up on the French horizon. Several other individual lawsuits are pending, including one case involving the regional social security branch of Saint Nazaire, which is suing Seita for reimbursement of the millions spent treating smoking-related illness -- illnesses that cost the French government roughly $15 billion in social security health payments this year and took an estimated 60,000 lives.

Francis Caballero is the man behind the movement. Demonized in the press as "malicious and sly," the feisty lawyer attributes his legal zest in part to the time he spent working with the Ralph Nader-influenced Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington. "I'm audacious," says Caballero. "I'm impassioned by America and don't hesitate using the law as a tool for initiating social change. This is a very un-French concept."

Caballero, who cites Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt as a role model, is also a lawyer for the National Committee Against Tobacco Addiction (CNCT), France's only militant, activist-style anti-tobacco organization. With multibillion-dollar Seita in the ring, the CNCT -- modestly funded and largely dependent on volunteers -- is engaged in a David-and-Goliath battle. But it persists. And Caballero, with the CNCT, has almost single-handedly taken on the otherwise unapproachable bastion of European tobacco. Says he, "We've worked like dogs for 10 years on this case. We're fighters who shock people." This is a slight understatement, according to the people at Seita.

"We categorically denounce the Americanization of French life by legal machinations," says J.P. Truchot, a spokesman for Seita and the Center for Tobacco Information and Documentation (CDIT). "This is an unacceptable form of health fascism that comes directly from America. It is a total aberration in France." Truchot emphasizes the importance of separating passion from reason in the tobacco debate, ignoring the fact that, all things considered, smoking is clearly an act of passion.

Citing voluminous stacks of studies -- including one from Germany that suggests that nonsmokers pose a greater economic burden on the state because they live longer -- Truchot calls the dangers of secondhand smoke an "American fabrication." And he warns of an impending American-style "victimization consciousness" that hovers on the edges of France's looming tobacco lawsuits. "I call them all the X-Files of tobacco."

Individual rights are at the center of the debate on both ends: Smokers fear an infringement on their individual rights to smoke, while nonsmokers fear an infringement on their individual rights to breathe. All this might not be such a big deal if the French culture prided itself more on civic behavior and respect for the law. Because in 1991 the Evin Law was passed -- a hefty piece of legislation, written by a Parliament member of the same name, that banned cigarette advertising in all media, outlawed smoking in many public places and required nonsmoking sections in restaurants. But aside from IBM, however, which made headlines in France when it imposed an entirely smoke-free environment in its Parisian headquarters, the Evin Law is largely unknown or simply ignored. Smoking is widespread and commonplace not only in restaurants, which are virtual dens of cigarette smoke, but even in public buildings normally considered symbols of public health.

"We'd have to have a cop on every floor to enforce the Evin Law here," says one midwife in a hospital where administrators smoke in the maternity ward. Says another individual who works in similar conditions at one of France's state-run train stations, "We're not Anglo-Saxons. We don't have a "Have a nice day" culture in France. We don't care if you have a nice day. Just look at the way we drive. We're Latin. If we want to smoke, we smoke. It's not our problem. It's yours."

Truchot, who considers Americans more "socially engineered" than socially responsible, goes further, dividing the world into three types of human beings: Anglo-Saxon types who respect the law because there's an inherent "Let's all get along" Boy Scout culture; Germanic types who respect the law because the law's the law; and Latin types who ask, "What's in this law for me? What is the spirit behind this law?" and then act accordingly.

Such elementary cultural stereotyping might partly explain why the CNCT today is representing more than 500 individual smoking-related cases. One of them involves a woman fired from her job at a newsstand for refusing to sell cigarettes to a 12-year-old (there are no age limits on cigarette purchases in France); another individual who worked for the Paris office of a major American airline spent nearly 10 years trying in vain to persuade management to enforce the Evin Law. "The French are like ostriches," he says. "We deal with problems by putting our heads in the sand. It's a national pathology."

Enforcing the Evin Law, which to Americans might seem more of a self-evident courtesy than an existential threat, has taken on political dimensions beyond France. According to Therese Lethu at the World Health Organization in Geneva, "The evolution of the judicial and penal system as it relates to prosecuting individuals for disrespect of the Evin Law is definitely on our agenda." Currently at work on the "Tobacco Free Initiative" -- the first global public health treaty -- Lethu has focused much of her attention on Africa, where French cigarette manufacturers continue to aggressively target children and disregard their legal obligation to put health warnings on their products. "If Africa could get mobilized," says Lethu, "it would represent a colossal legal threat to French cigarette manufacturers. Today, the only thing you'll see on a pack of cigarettes in Francophone Africa is 'Made in France.'" (According to the World Health Organization, within the next 30 years, smoking-related deaths are expected to rise to 10 million, of which 70 percent will occur in developing countries.)

The pathology of smoking in France leads one to consider the schizophrenic behavior of the French government. Until recently it owned Seita, which meant it rang up billions in tobacco taxes while meekly funding prevention programs. Today, despite the recent privatization of Seita, the French government will collect $13 billion in cigarette taxes, nearly 50 percent of which will underwrite what the French prime minister has called the country's "single most important social measure of the new millennium" -- the implementation of a 35-hour workweek.

Of the billions that fatten the coffers of the French government, only a fraction fund social and public awareness programs such as tobacco education. But if one were to assess the nation's priorities in terms of the scope and visibility of its civic campaigns, one might think that dog excrement looms larger on the national agenda than smoking. (Recently in Paris it was impossible to avoid an aggressive Curb Your Dog campaign featuring billboard photos of people being terrorized by turds on the streets. You will not see similar smoking campaigns anywhere in France, and certainly none like those in the United States.)

"We admire what you do in America and we're always watching you," says Beatrice Spicer of the National French Health Education Board. "But you can't preach morality to the French. We will categorically reject it. French smokers know about their risks. That's why our campaigns are not designed to prevent people from starting to smoke but rather to help them stop smoking once they've started." When pressed on the curious logic of the campaign premise, Spicer concedes, "Yes, well, these are soft campaigns. Maybe we should take more risks. Maybe it would work in the long run. But we're a government-funded organization. Everything we do is approved by committee. There's only so much we can say and do."

What the French Health Board does say and do is created in large measure by Publicis, one of France's biggest advertising agencies. Says campaign manager Patrick Zindel, "Our most significant campaign efforts are focused on children and teens. Then again, your American tobacco companies also focus their prevention programs on teens. Teens are almost impossible to influence in any consistent fashion. The idea of cancer is abstract to them. They think they're immortal. Anti-smoking campaigns simply incite them to transgress the law and smoke. Tobacco companies know this, which is why they're putting their prevention dollars into these types of programs." Today, more than half of the young-adult and teenage population in France smokes.

Ever since Christopher Columbus brought American tobacco to the European continent the French have cherished their cigarettes. (The words "cigarette" and "nicotine" come from the French, the latter named for French ambassador Jean Nicot, who cured Catherine de Medicis' migraines with tobacco.) But it was America, through World War II propaganda and Hollywood exports, that ultimately gave cigarettes the cachet that drove them deep into the fabric of French society.

It is an irony of our times that the country that did the most to commodify the cigarette -- in the grand industrial sense of the term, cigarettes were born in the USA -- is now fanning the flames of its extinction. It may be only a matter of time before Europe catches on.

"We're about five to 10 years behind America," says Zindel. "But everything in America eventually makes its way here. As soon as health and well-being become as trendy in France as they are in America, cigarette smoking will probably start to diminish."

Until then, the French would prefer not to see American-style lawsuits on their turf. But to avoid them, the French -- smokers and nonsmokers alike -- will have to learn to get along better. "And that," adds Zindel, "is a very tough call."

By Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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