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The first tobacco control law in France, adopted in 1976 and known as the “loi Veil”, or Veil law after the then health minister, gave the right to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) specialising in tobacco control to launch legal action if the law was not respected. This right was confirmed in the Evin law of 1991, and even extended to consumers’ rights and families’ rights associations in public health legislation in 2004.
The health ministry has provided partial financial support to NGOs for this purpose since 1991. This support is due to the fact that the first law (loi Veil) was not enforced at all by the ministry of justice, the appropriate authority, which to this day still shows a total lack of commitment to tobacco control. This inertia of the public prosecutors only encouraged the tobacco industry to continue and develop its promotional campaigns during the 1970s and ’80s.
In France, the tobacco industry is still very powerful. The former monopoly, SEITA, now part of Altadis, maintains close relationships with the authorities, including customs, retailers and many other sectors. The provision for NGOs to launch legal action has therefore been vital. In other countries where the industry is still very powerful, including developing countries, the ability to initiate legal action can also be an invaluable way to implement the FCTC because it can, at least partly, compensate for the lack of will or resources of the government to monitor and enforce legislation. Moreover, the limited financial resources of health organisations can easily be made good by the fines imposed on tobacco companies found to have breached the law.
Thanks to law suits that French NGOs have been able to take, they have developed a whole jurisprudence about the advertising ban, health warnings and non-smoker’s rights, which greatly contributes to strengthening the legislation and ensuring its comprehensive enforcement. Experience shows that legal actions put the tobacco companies in an uncomfortable situation, a kind of insecurity. They damage the companies’ images, and managers are rightly frightened of being found personally guilty, another important possibility under the French law. The impact is all the more important when verdicts are reported in the press and contribute to public opinion about tobacco. This plays a direct part in the “denormalisation” of the tobacco industry and of smoking in society.
However, experience also shows that even when legal victories have been won, the tobacco industry never gives up, but keeps on fighting behind the scenes, step by step, to try to recover and maintain the use of all its tactics. Day after day we see how the tobacco industry continues to exploit loopholes in various regulations. In this respect, monitoring systems have been developed since 1991, which control, list and analyse all the violations concerning the advertising ban. It may be about indirect promotion at retailers, motor racing sponsorship during Formula One events, or product placement in films. These systematic observations, which could be useful in the elaboration of a protocol concerning trans-border advertising under the FCTC, enable us to monitor the marketing activities of the tobacco industry, and consequently adapt our litigation strategy. The recent evolution of the use of tobacco packs as a support for tobacco advertisements is an illustration of the industry’s persistence. Even if we managed to condemn these “fun packs”, it clearly shows the necessity of plain packaging. In this respect, legal action can also lead the way towards other tobacco control measures.