There is something inherently French about sitting at a cafe with a glass of wine and a pack of cigarettes. The iconic Gitanes gypsy dancer and flying Gauloises helmet cigarette logos have become emblematic of a rooted culture of smoking in France.
But those gypsy dancers and flying helmets are no more, the French health ministry announced this week: By the end of the year, tobacco shops will be mandated to sell cigarettes in plain, branding-free packaging.
The law, which the French parliament narrowly passed at the end of last year, hopes to reduce smoking rates by 10 percent over the next five years. France has some of the highest smoking rates in Europe – 32 percent of men and 26 percent of women smoke daily, according to the World Health Organization.
At the start of next year, all cigarette packs will look exactly the same; plain dark green packages with the brand name denoted in small uniform typeface with even larger and more graphic health warnings. Here is the design distributed by the French health ministry:
"We can't accept that tobacco kills 73,000 people every year in our country — the equivalent of a plane crash every day with 200 people on board," French Health Minister Marisol Touraine said in 2014 after the bill's initial proposal.
As with most cigarette regulation in France, mandating branding-free packaging was not an overwhelmingly popular opinion. After all, this is the country of famous chain-smoking artists and philosophers – a history the French hold near and dear to their hearts.
"If we accept the neutral cigarette packet, in six months you will be offered a neutral bottle of wine, and this will be the end of our names; it will be the end of our land; it will be the end of our knowhow," former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in opposition of the law.
"Tomorrow, ‘fundamentalists’ will demand a neutral bottle for wines. Then neutral cheese."
France is not the first to mandate plain packaging
France is the second country to implement this branding-free cigarette packaging; Australia passed the same law in 2012, and Ireland and the UK are expected to do the same.
Australia's graphic and uniform packaging has gotten a lot backlash from tobacco companies, which are understandably frustrated that their branding rights have been stripped from them, but the legal cases have favored the government so far.
Graphic labels and health risk warnings have long been the trend in the effort to curb smoking. The United States Congress passed graphic health warning requirements in 2009 that mandate the use of nine more noticeable warnings to appear on packaging, and more than 30 countries have similar regulations.
According to reporting from The Verge, "It’s difficult to quantify the effect that plain packaging has on consumer behavior, though studies have shown that it likely acts as a deterrent":
A series of papers published in the journal Addiction found that the neutral packs led to a decline in smoking at outdoor restaurants, cafes, and bars in Australia, while others have shown that they make cigarettes seem less appealing to adolescents. Australia’s Public Health Association last month described its plain packaging legislation as a "remarkable success," and although the regulation has coincided with tax increases and a broad awareness campaign, researchers say it’s clear that the law has played a role in lowering smoking rates.
For France, if this new packaging mandate will dissuade young smokers a little more, the health ministry is willing to give it a try.