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French vendors protest tobacco tax hike

PARIS -- France's war on smoking faced its first major battle yesterday as the government raised cigarette taxes and tobacco vendors nationwide hit back by closing shops and refusing to sell the higher-priced smokes.

Black flags hung from shuttered tobacco shops across France, with 90 percent of the country's 34,000 vendors joining the "day of mourning" for what they declared a dying trade.

"Your tobacco vendor is fighting for survival," read a notice taped outside Paris smoke shops.

It made for a tough day in a nation of 20 million smokers.

"Just great!" moaned Hakim Hachouche, a dancer frantically searching for an open tobacco shop on his way to morning rehearsal. "I can't have a cigarette even if I want to pay more for it."

The average price for a pack jumped from $4.60 to $5.40 in US dollars. The increase, the second since January, comes as the government pursues an aggressive anti-smoking campaign. A third increase planned for early 2004 will push the price of a pack to about $6.30 -- roughly 50 percent more than a year earlier.

"This is a war against smoking, and we're attacking from all angles," said Helene Monard, a spokeswoman for the Health Ministry's anti-smoking division. "We've never had a campaign this strong. Never."

This summer the country passed a law making it illegal for people under 16 to buy tobacco products -- the first such age limit imposed in France.

Authorities also are cracking down on people who violate the smoking ban in hospitals, airports, and other public places.

And the government is pressuring the movie industry to stop glorifying smokers.

Political will has been backed by cash: The 2003 budget devoted $8 million to anti-tobacco causes, up from $466,000 last year.

France has long been a smoker's paradise, where lighting up is considered sophisticated and chic.

Some 20 million French smoke -- over a third of the population -- as do 50 percent of youths aged 15-24, the highest rate in the European Union.

The country, however, is slowly waking up to tobacco's ugly side.

Lung cancer was the leading cause of death for people under 65 last year, and smoking-related illnesses claimed 66,000 lives.

The antismoking campaign has met resistance. Hundreds of students went on strike at a high school near Paris when the principal tried to enforce rules against smoking on school grounds. Rising prices have spawned a black market and driven smokers to buy cheaper cigarettes in neighboring countries.

Nationwide, cigarette sales fell an unprecedented 8.2 percent in the first eight months of the year. "It's becoming too expensive to smoke," said Roland Debas, a sandwich shop manager in Paris' tony 8th arrondissement. "I've been telling myself it's time to quit, and there's no question this will speed things up."

Health costs associated with smoking are a growing burden. The state health care system is $12.8 billion in the red, partly from the costs of cancer treatment.

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