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April 14th, 2015:

French MPs vote to change laws on smoking, nutrition, binge drinking, fashion models

France’s lower parliament voted in favour of a package of wide-ranging reforms affecting many areas of public health regulations on Tuesday. Many public health lobbyists are happy about the changes, although they say some measures still need to be elaborated in practice.

Most of the attention the proposals of Health Minister Marisol Touraine have received in the French media has revolved around protests from doctors over changes to fee payment systems.

However, it also contains far-reaching measures on regulations around smoking, including making it illegal to smoke inside of a vehicle with someone under 18 years of age or to smoke electronic cigarettes in workplaces.

But the main measures really clamp down on marketing in the tobacco industry, including the implementation of plain packaging for all cigarette brands.

“It’s the end of the possibility for the tobacco industry to use packaging as a marketing tool, because there’s no space for advertising on the new package,” says Stephen Lequet, chief lobbyist with French NGO Non-Smokers’ Rights, in reference to a ban to come into effect as of May 2016.

The measures would also oblige tobacco companies to provide details on their marketing and advertising activities, including spending figures.

“I’m also happy about the new rules about transparency in lobbying, because it’s important for society to know the lobbying means used by this particular industry,” Lequet said.

Other measures address issues of nutrition and obesity, including the introduction of a new labelling system for food products. “It’s very important for consumers to know more about the nutritional value of the food they eat on a daily basis, because the present nutritional labelling is very difficult to understand for the average consumer,” says Olivier Andrault, food manager with consumer association UFC Que Choisir. “It talks about carbohydrates and sodium and saturated fat, which is totally illegible for normal people.”

UFC Que Choisir has campaigned alongside doctors and nutritionists for an easier-to-read system. However, although the new law paves the way for a new system, it does not say exactly which system will be used.

“The new law just gives a general principle that the government and the various actors in the food sector will try to develop, but there is a fierce battle between the food industry, retailers, consumer organisations and health authorities,” Andrault explains. For example, a system proposed by doctors would give a letter grade based on the nutritional value of a product, while distributors would prefer a system based on how many times a week any given product should be consumed. “Most of the food industry does not want any simplified labelling scheme,” he says. “The reason is very simple: they do not want the consumer to know too clearly the bad nutritional quality of their products. [But] for retailers, it’s interesting to see a very positive attitude.”

Andrault explains how supermarket chains are working together to devise a common system, and hopes it can be used to fulfil the requirements of the new law.

“We hope health authorities and retailers will manage to define a common scheme, because what is important for us is to have one official, simplified scheme that will be used throughout France for all food products.” Another set of proposals targets the modelling and fashion industry in hopes of fighting anorexia and health issues related to image issues.

One law would force agencies to ensure that a model’s body mass index is at a healthy level, while another restriction would force magazines and advertisers to include labels that say whether images of models have been altered.

Now those in favour of these measures are happy they’re included, but there are also concerns about their effectiveness given the nature of the fashion industry.

“It’s great this law is being passed, even though the reality of the fashion industry is that it doesn’t just happen in Paris, it also happens in New York, Milan and London,” says Natalie Yuksel, a British fashion photographer based in Paris.

“I feel it’s a law that has to be passed in all those countries for it to really work,” she says. “I just don’t see realistically how the law can just be applied to France, as the same girls will show in all of the other cities. I just hope on the back of this, the other cities will also implement this law.”

But Yuksel is also hopeful the reform could be part of wider changes in the international fashion world.

“If there’s enough noise about something, change does happen,” she says.

Other measures include banning those under the age of 18 from tanning salons and fighting binge drinking among young people.

The law would impose fines of up to 15,000 euros and up to a year in prison for anyone encouraging the excessive consumption of alcohol