Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Don’t Hold Your Breath

The French government has raised cigarette prices with the hopes of discouraging cigarette consumption (and help ease an unhealthy deficit). But don’t expect to see the smoke clear anytime soon.

It was Valentine’s Day. The candles were flickering, the champagne had been finished off, and the waiter had just presented our final dessert course. I looked at my pink, heart-shaped sorbet, gazed into my loved one’s eyes, leaned forward and…coughed.

The smokers at the table next to us had done it again, lighting up in the middle of their meal and aiming their cigarettes right at our table. I looked down again at my sorbet heart, which had since melted and separated to resemble a pair of deformed lungs. My appetite vanished, and I quietly cursed France’s love of tobacco.

I was thus the first to cheer the French government’s move last year to raise cigarette prices not once but twice. The hikes were aimed at discouraging smoking, as well as provide a monetary boost to the country’s ailing Social Security system, which would be the recipient of the returns. Although the higher prices continue to be met with grumbling, health officials declared that the 2003 hikes marked the first time a price increase succeeded in encouraging people to go cold turkey. Riding on that momentum, the government announced another price hike to take effect on January 5.

And so it was that I waltzed into work on January 5 expecting to see my nicotine-dependent colleagues fashionably outfitted with nicotine patches and haggard looks. Instead, however, business went on as usual, with the tobacco team regularly descending to the first floor for their cigarette break. Had they not heard the news? Or perhaps they had all spent New Year’s in Belgium and stocked up on cigarettes to take advantage of the cheaper prices…

I decided to investigate, surveying in a most scientific manner the ten smokers with whom I’m able to communicate without leaving my chair. And after all my calculations, the results are in: none have quit, and even fewer think the law will drastically change their consumption habits. All said, however, that they had been forced to make minor adjustments.

“I’m reducing the number of cigarettes I smoke per day from 2,000 to 1,998,” said one smoker, who believed such a reduction would allow him to offset the higher cost per pack.

“I only smoke five or six per day anyway, so I’m the biggest victim here,” complained another smoker. “It’s impossible for me to reduce my consumption any further, even if the price is higher. So the government gets richer while my health stays the same. I have no options!”

Well, except to quit, right?

“I suppose, but come on. That’s not going to happen,” he answered.

Some said they would try to reduce their cigarettes to a “healthier” number.

“My doctor said five to ten was okay,” said another survey participant, whose current consumption is a multiple of ten. Several smokers seemed to agree on the 5-cigarette principle: one in the morning, one after lunch, another late in the afternoon, one after dinner, and one (or two, or three) in case of an emergency.

“I always keep one on hand to have après,” whispered the office Casanova, his seductive smile revealing a row of yellowed teeth. Sexy.

My survey was going nowhere, and seemed to contradict what the newspapers and government officials have been saying over the past few months. Namely, tobacco sales are down, and according to a survey this past October, 16.3% of smokers gave up smoking last year (compared to 9.2% in 1999). Of the quitters, 67% said to do so because of the price increase.

Still, the government is not yet ready to declare victory, as the fall in tobacco revenues is also likely tied to the fact that smokers are buying their cigarettes in neighboring Belgium. Many are also making just slight cutbacks, going from Ludicrous Consumption to Ridiculous Consumption levels. And then there are the ever-savvy cigarette makers, who seem to be smoking a different kind of plant. Their response to the higher prices has been to launch new, cheaper packs with only 19 cigarettes. Maybe people won’t realize there’s one cigarette missing?

In the meantime, I’m trying to steer clear of the smoke-filled restaurants. I’ve heard they’ve just opened a no-smoking restaurant in the 5th arrondissement. It’s name? Breakfast in America.

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