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Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
French strike over cigarette prices
Protester burns cigarette boxes
Angry protesters have taken to the streets
France's 34,000 tobacconists on Monday staged their first ever national strike in protest against a sharp rise in cigarette prices.

The strike coincided with a 20% increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes, the second of three planned price rises.

"Three separate price increases will push the cost of smoking up by half in the space of a year," said BBC News correspondent in Paris, Quentin Somerville.

France has long had some of the cheapest cigarettes in Europe but is now trying to persuade people to quit the habit.

However, critics say the increases are being used to help bail out France's troubled state finances.

Cross-border buying

Nine out of 10 tobacconists were closed for the day, and 60 demonstrations were planned across the country.

Average price, pack of 20 (euros)
Norway 7.3
UK 6.7
France 5.0
Germany 3.4
Netherlands 2.9
Italy 2.5
Spain 1.9

US 3.3
Japan 2.2
South Africa 1.3

French tobacconists have a monopoly on cigarette sales and take a percentage of every packet sold.

The price rises will force tobacconists out of business, and the number of bankruptcies has already gone up by 57% in a year, according to the Confederation of Licensed Tobacco Sellers.

"The government says loud and clear that it wants the day to come when there is not a single smoker left in France," said Rene Le Pape, president of the confederation.

"What I want is to make sure that our network of 34,000 traders doesn't disappear as well."

The government has offered an aid package worth around 120m euros to help the worst-affected tobacconists, but the shopkeepers say it is not enough.

Health fears

The price rises are designed to encourage people to stop smoking.

Putting up prices by 25% means reducing consumption by 10% and in the years ahead preventing 10,000 deaths a year
Jean-Francois Mattei
Health Minister
The number of people smoking has been declining slowly, but around 42% of the population still smoke.

The French government is particularly worried that smoking remains popular with pregnant women and young people.

"Putting up prices by 25% means reducing consumption by 10% and in the years ahead preventing 10,000 deaths a year," said Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei.

After the change, a packet of cigarettes will cost more than five euros a pack, about 3.50, much more than in many of France's neighbours.

But there is nothing to stop consumers driving to neighbouring countries to stock up, and tobacconists in border regions say their business is being ruined by the huge differential in prices.

Police are more concerned at the rise in large-scale smuggling, which is already estimated to account for up to 30% of cigarette sales in Britain.

Should cigarette prices be even higher to stop people smoking? Or is it just an excuse for the government to boost its income?

The BBC's Allan Little reports from Calais
"France is planning more rises"

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