Era of smoky French cafes stubbed out

· Tobacco control
· Europe
Some French protest, but others see it as a good reason to quit.

Nonsmokers reveled. Some smokers grumbled. But others pondered kicking the habit as France's smoking ban went into effect Tuesday with the start of the new year.

Owners of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and cafes, where smoking is now prohibited, worried it would be bad for business.

Newly hung no-smoking signs dotted the entrance and walls of the Cafe Elysees, off Paris' celebrated Champs-Elysees avenue, and staffers bundled up against the cold for sidewalk smoke breaks. Client Pierre Morgon, 22, praised the ban, saying the cafe's clean air allowed him to better appreciate the food.

"Today's filet mignon tastes richer than it did yesterday," the Cafe Elysees regular said with a sly smile.

Morgon, a smoker, said the restrictions would also help motivate him to quit: "There's no way I'll be able to put it off anymore."

Others saw the ban as attack on their rights.

Jean-Pierre Aiglement, a 55-year-old waiter at the Cafe Au Depart in northern Paris, vowed not to be "chased out onto the pavement" by the "stupid law."

"I'll smoke where I please," he said, lighting a cigarette with his morning coffee.

French officials gave smokers a New Year's day reprieve, saying they would only start enforcing the ban today. But many Paris cafes and restaurants had already gone smoke-free.

Eight states in neighboring Germany also launched restrictions on smoking in bars and restaurants, though the measures were generally more flexible than in France.

Under France's ban, those caught lighting up inside face a $93 fine, while owners who turn a blind eye to smoking in their establishments face a $198 fine.

Restaurateurs and cafe personnel say the ban forces them to police their clients, and insist it will slice into their revenues.

"Once they start enforcing the ban, this place will be empty," Aiglement said.

Loic Chardonnay, a 22-year-old waiter at the Cafe Elysees, said he expected business to slow down for several months.

"But it'll pick up once we French get used to it," he predicted, pointing to the success of recent smoking bans in Spain and Italy.

With the ban, France joins the swelling ranks of European countries that have enacted broad anti-smoking restrictions. But for many in this country known for its smoky cafes, cigarettes are an integral part of what it means to be French.

About a quarter of France's 60 million people smoke. The Health Ministry said one in two regular smokers -- or some 66,000 people annually -- dies of smoking-related illness here, and about 5,000 nonsmokers die each year from second-hand smoke.

Last year saw the reinforcement of a long-standing prohibition on smoking in France's work places, schools, airports, hospitals and other "closed and covered" public places such as train stations. Restaurants and other so-called places of conviviality were given an extra 11 months to adapt to the new rules, which allow smoking only inside special sealed chambers.

Restaurateurs have decried the chambers, which they say are prohibitively expensive, and urged more flexibility.

In Germany, a group representing restaurant and bar owners filed a challenge to the country's supreme court against new anti-smoking laws -- which took effect Tuesday in eight states.

American tourist Regina Sauma applauded the European efforts to go smoke-free. Sauma, a New Yorker who often travels to Europe for business, said she did not think the French ban was a threat to Parisian cafe culture.

"There's more to Paris than just smoke," Sauma said as she savored a cigarette on a chilly outdoor terrace.

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