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France’s Nanny State Sparks Fresh Debates

On Thursday, December 17, the French Parliament officially (but narrowly) adopted a highly controversial set of health reform measures championed by health minister Marisol Touraine. These include, among other things, the removal of up-front fees for patient visits to doctors’ offices, body mass requirements for fashion models, and the adoption of a hotly-disputed “plain packaging” law that will remove company and brand logos from cigarette packets. The passage of the newly-minted laws, which has driven over a year of vociferous debate between the Socialist parliamentary majority and the center-right opposition, is unlikely to spell the end of discussion over the changes.

Already, the French right’s leading candidates for the 2017 election (including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé) have promised they would repeal the law, in whole or in part, if elected. The debate over cigarette packaging, for which the new rules are set to go into effect in May 2016, has been particularly divisive for French lawmakers.

France’s decision to adopt plain packaging follows an example first set by Australia in December 2012 and since applied by Ireland and the U.K. Supporters of plain packaging argue, as they have in other countries, that the obligatory format for all cigarette brands (whose packaging will now be identical and prominently feature anti-smoking messages over brand and company names) will help reduce overall consumption and help dissuade young people from picking up the habit.

Those who oppose it, meanwhile, include not only the tobacco companies but also France’s approximately 27,000 individual tobacconists and a sizeable number of parliamentarians on both the left and right of the political spectrum.

Within the Socialist Party, representatives such as Jacques Valax have criticized the impact it would have on France’s tobacconists (whose small, centrally-located shops often serve as hubs of French social life) as well as feared increases in illicit cigarette smuggling and unlicensed dealers. Meanwhile, Frédéric Barbier expressed concern over France outpacing the rest of the European Union in terms of tobacco legislation, claiming that legal sales of cigarettes had dropped 20% while the rate of smoking itself had increased by 7%. Republicans representative Élie Aboud, meanwhile, brought up lost tax revenue in Australia: “we do have one statistic: one billion dollars in revenue lost every year. Your colleagues at Bercy [the Ministry of Finance] will be pleased.”

Australia, whose plain packaging laws have now been in effect for three years, is likely to serve as an illustrative example to both supporters and opponents of the measure. The Australian Ministry of Health, for example, demonstrates that March 2014 marked the lowest estimated expenditure on tobacco on record, while showing the percentage of daily smokers dropped from 15.1% in 2010 to 12.8% in 2013. Critics of the change, meanwhile, indicate existing historical trends toward reduced smoking in order to demonstrate that the switch to plain packaging had little to no effect on Australian’s smoking habits. They also point to the simultaneous tax increases on cigarettes the Australian government has put into place, which make it difficult to ascertain the full impact of plain packaging while also helping the black market in tobacco grow by 30% in 2013. In all, 2.6 million kilograms of illegal tobacco were estimated to have been consumed in 2013.

However, perhaps the most salient argument advanced against the plain packaging deal, which may seem somewhat exaggerated at first glance but is of real concern to at least some manufacturers, is that the enforced standardization of cigarette packs could later become a “slippery slope” to similar measures that include soft drinks, fast food, candy, and all manner of otherwise “unhealthy” goods. In the U.K., Mars Inc. (the maker of M&Ms and Snickers) has already expressed its concern over this possibility in regards to plain packaging in Britain, writing to the Department of Health in 2012 that the change would “set a key precedent for the application of similar legislation to other industries.”

For France to pursue such rules in the future would not be altogether surprising, given its reputation for stringent and meticulous legislation of the market. As a matter of fact, the same controversial package of health measures championed by Touraine also includes a requirement that processed foods sport color-coded labels based on their nutritional content. With the opposition joined by several left-wing parliamentarians in their avowed concerns over the plain packaging law, it is quite possible that both that and other components of France’s new health reforms will be called into question even after they have been implemented.

While the health benefits of reducing smoking rates are not up for debate, the controversy over plain packaging can be seen as another manifestation of the oft-invoked balance between individual freedoms and security (or in this case, public health). Just how long should the arm of the state reach in regulating individual behavior for the public good? While the jury is still out on the overall efficiency of plain packaging, from a policy standpoint, the law signals a strengthening of the notion that state action trumps consumer freedoms.