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Culture

A Rude Awakening for French Smokers

Some 60,000 people die in France from the consequences of smoking each year. A French anti-smoking committee now hopes a dramatic TV ad will turn long-time tobacco-addicts into adamant non-smokers.

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"Young smokers have to understand that cigarettes are bringing you closer to death."

Smoking might be more French than a French baguette, and some say it's almost become a part of French physiognomy.

French actors from Juliette Binoche to Alain Delon regulary enjoy the "Liberté tojours!," or "freedom at any time", as advertised on billboards by the French cigarette company Gauloise. And so do millions of French.

But if everything goes according to the plans of the country's National Committee Against Tobacco (CNCT), many will soon quit voluntarily.

A extreme television spot produced by the CNCT and aired on France's private TV channel TF 1 and has already caused a sensation in a country where some 60,000 die annually from the consequences of tobacco abuse.

These pictures are real

The 27-second spot shows uncensored pictures from the life of Richard Gourlain. Gourlain has been smoking since the age of 14, the viewers are told, "an age when one still thinks of oneself as being immortal." The average age also, at which French kids smoke their first cigarette.

Then follow pictures taken from his family album; Gourlain as a youth; Gourlain as a recruit; Gourlain as a bridegroom. The cigarette was wherever Gourlain was, no matter what the occasion.

Then, Gourlain at 49. He is shrunken to the bone and weighs only 39 kilos (85 pounds). It's the final stage of lung cancer, his last movements and his apathy are documented on film by his wife. "This man has only another five days to live," says an offscreen voice. Richard Gourlain died in 1999 at the age of 49.

Opinion makers in France have responded positively to the campaign. Le Figaro called it the "most brutal campaign against smoking France has ever experienced."

"Young smokers have to understand that cigarettes are bringing you closer to death," the French paper Havre wrote in a commentary.

The president of the CNCT told the French Libération that there was no hidden agenda behind the spot.

"This is no voyeurism, and we don't want to shock for shock's sake," said Gérard Dubois . "These pictures are real."

Part of a larger movement

The TV spot is the second such campaign to shock the French public in recent weeks.

Shortly before the evening news a very simple TV ad, white letters written on black ground, had informed the public that "a product consumed on a daily basis" had been found to contain "traces of prussic acid, quicksilver, acetone and ammonia." Some 900,000 people called the number given in the ad to learn that the product in question were cigarettes.

These ads are part of a movement to reduce the impact of nicotine in France. More than ten years ago, France introduced legislation that forces restaurants and bars to offer special non-smoking sections. Although public acceptance of non-smokers has become higher within the last years, anti-smoking signs in train and metro stations are still mostly ignored.

However, according to Gilbert Lagrue, French author of a book on smokers' behaviour, the image of smokers has changed in France. "Twenty years ago, everyone smoked everywhere and it was the non-smoker who was considered the troublemaker," Lagrue told the German wire service dpa. "Today smokers do not have a positive image anymore."

While France is resorting to drastic measures in order to make smoking unattractive, Germany isn't quite there yet, despite figures in Germany showing an equal if not greater demand for action.

In Germany number of victim even higher

According to the German Cancer Society (Deutsche Krebshilfe) 140,000 people die annually from the consequences of tobacco consumption, the equivalent of 380 people a day. Some 16.7 million out of a total of around 80 million Germans say they smoke on a regular basis.

But things might be changing here too.

Campaigns like the recent nationwide non-smoking competition "Quit and Win" that took place in May this year as well as a new law coming into effect later this summer that gives non-smokers better protection in their work environment might be first steps to slowly change attitudes.

Another law which could go into effect in 2007 would require cigarette vending machines be equipped with special chip cards to prevent children and teenagers under a certain age from buying cigarettes.

Yet, right now Germany does not plan to have more drastic advertising like the one in France. The spots run in German cinemas today are targeted toward a younger audience and are mostly flippant portrayals of the "lonesome cowboy riding through the wilderness and enjoying his freedom" stereotype.

"As it looks so far," Michaela Goecke from the German chapter of the World Health Organisation's Project on Tobacco Addiction told DW-WORLD. "Germany will stick to this comparatively 'soft approach', simply because it's not proven yet that shocking campaigns like the one in France achieve anything."

Goecke thinks that more important than shocking advertising is that tobacco taxes are increased. "And when we talk about an increase, I mean a drastic increase," says Goecke, "so that a box will cost five or six euro ($5 or 6)."

"And another necessary step we're calling for is that cigarette advertising is abolished on television," Goecke adds.

Whatever the individual country's answer to the high number of nicotine victims is, one of the major challenges will be how to convince especially teenagers that "freedom at any time" can be turned into a freedom from addiction.