Emmanuel Macron is gearing up to mark the first anniversary of his election as Elysee-watchers ask whether – or when – nationwide rail strikes will start testing his resolve for reform. For the young leader’s liberal agenda, it’s imperative the showdown over the railways not sap too much political capital or momentum. After all, the vast majority of his nearly 400 campaign promises have yet to be realized.
While it has not gotten nearly as much press as the railway battle, Macron’s government did take a key step towards at least one of those promises last month. Keeping to a campaign pledge Macron’s ministers have held to, France upped the price of a pack of cigarettes one euro to €8 on 1 March. The results have been immediate and impressive. After the price increase, cigarette sales plummeted by nearly 20% in March.
This is all part of a longer-term – which corresponds to one of those many campaign promises made by Macron – to push the price of a pack of cigarettes up to €10 by 2020. According to a road map laid out by Health Minister Agnès Buzyn, the government’s priority is to “rapidly and strongly” raise the price of tobacco starting in 2018 with the ultimate objective of producing a “cigarette-free generation”. It’s a bold endeavour, given the French have a reputation for one of the most deeply-rooted smoking cultures in Europe.
Tobacco use is certainly higher in France than in much of the rest of the EU. According to Eurostat, total smoking rates in France stood at 20.5% in 2014. By comparison, that rate stood at 17.4% in Italy, 15% in Germany, and 13.7% in the UK. In real terms, that translates to nearly 14 million French smokers and 73,000 premature deaths every year.
Macron came into office promising a transformative brand of politics. Getting France to quit smoking would certainly count as revolutionary change. That said, neither the global tobacco industry nor the politically powerful buralistes (the local tobacconists and newsagents who sell France’s cigarettes) are willing to go down without a fight.
They don’t pack quite the same numbers or clout as the SNCF employees grinding the French transport sector to a halt, but France’s cigarette sellers did use about one hundred vehicles to stall traffic in Paris last October. Officially speaking, their protests are not targeted at the increase in cigarette prices but instead at the government’s supposedly insufficient efforts to combat the black market in tobacco.
By focusing on illicit cigarettes, the industry and its local allies are trying to pin down the government on two contradictory international obligations. On the one hand, the European Commission has mandated each member state (including France) implement an ad hoc “track and trace” traceability system to fight the illicit tobacco trade. On the other hand, the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – which both the European Union and France have ratified – stipulates in its Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products that systems meant to interdict illicit tobacco must be kept independent of vested interests (namely the tobacco industry).
The Commission claims its “track and trace” approach complies with the FCTC by turning the responsibility over to member states as opposed to industry. Critics remain unconvinced. As French MEP Philippe Juvin explained: “We started from 0%. The WHO Convention makes clear there needs to be a very strict separation between those making the cigarettes and those tracing them. Very strict separation means 0% shared revenue. The European Commission has opened a window – a small window, true, but a window all the same – allowing for track and trace companies who already work with the tobacco industry to take a share of the market.” Another French MEP, Younous Omarjee, attempted to block the Commission’s approach with a parliamentary veto but was ultimately stymied by the EC health directorate.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Uruguay’s President Tabaré Ramón Vázquez seemingly issued their own warning against industry back doors in an op-ed published just a few days after the EC’s final “track and trace” decision. Their article contained the following admonition, among others: “Governments face a moral and legal imperative to use the strongest possible measures to protect their citizens from tobacco.”
Since then, multiple Commissioners have undercut their own protestations by failing to maintain distance from the tobacco giants. France’s Canard Enchainé reported Pierre Moscovici and Julian King were both scheduled to take part in a Brussels conference titled “Contraband, counterfeits, and the financing of terrorism” on 11 April. According to the Canard, the conference was hosted by the Robert Schuman Foundation and funded by Philip Morris International.
That puts the Commissioners’ presence squarely at odds with the WHO’s requirements for independent policymaking, all while the Commission implements a trace and trace system exposed to industry influence and Moscovici oversees negotiations on tobacco excise taxes.
Macron himself wrote to the Confederation of tobacconists just over one year ago to inform them he would apply the WHO FCTC protocol during the campaign. All the same, France’s cigarette sellers promise to up the pressure if the government tries to exclude them from the fight against illicit tobacco. France is not the only EU member country navigating the discrepancy between the EC’s alleged willingness to continence industry influence and the FCTC’s express prohibition of it. Austria, Spain, Portugal, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus, Slovakia and Germany (and indeed the European Union itself) have all ratified the additional Protocol. Among member states, the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Slovenia have also signed. Many of those countries are wrapping up the process of ratifying.
If France’s buralistes plan to stymie French government implementation of the Protocol with pressure tactics, the current railway fight could prove informative. French cheminots have far more clout, and yet neither Macron nor France’s prime minister Édouard Philippe have shown any intention of backing down. €10 cigarettes already seem a fait accompli. Macron, with his need for kept promises to point to, should be expected to do the same with the FCTC.
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