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Political Dictionary of the History of Health

Tobacco control

Tobacco control, for all that it serves unquestionable health purposes, remains steeped in political issuesLa Santé de l'homme, n°200, septembre-octobre 1976.Tobacco control, for all that it serves unquestionable health purposes, remains steeped in political issues


   Upon its discovery during Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the “Indies” at the end of the 15th century, tobacco was rapidly introduced in The West. Although it was met with misgivings, especially from significant clergy figures, its consumption spread on the grounds of therapeutic virtues ascribed to it. Some physicians were prompt in stating the potential dangers of this consumption. However, their questioning would only take a fresh turn in the 19th century upon the discovery of nicotine in 1809 and its isolation in 1829. Indeed nicotine, the alkaloid present in tobacco leaves, turned out to be a violent poison whereupon the image of tobacco began to change even though the number of users continued to grow.


   In order to stem this process anti-tobacco activists stepped in giving birth to the first anti-smoking associations. The Association Française contre l'Abus de Tabac (1868) and the Société Française Contre l'Abus de Tabac (1877) would not, however, survive the shock of the First World War. The debate was rejoined in 1950 upon publication of two reports, one from the US the other from the UK, which alleged the possible existence of a causal link between tobacco consumption and the onset of lung cancer. Thereafter research took off and by the end of that decade multiple studies left scientists in no doubt that tobacco consumption was the cause of many cancers. Some health institutions such as the World Health Organisation, London’s Royal College of Physicians and the Académie nationale de médecine called for the inception of public health policies. In the United States and the United Kingdom, they were brouTobacco controlght by the end of the 50s, followed more broadly from the 70s onwards, notably in the Scandinavian countries.

Not until 1975 did the French government take action at the instigation of Simone Veil.  While a succession of health ministers, Raymond Marcellin (1962-1966), Jean-Marcel Jeanneney (1966-1968) et Robert Boulin (1969-1972), had sought it, tobacco control was hindered by the Ministry for Economy and Finance which oversaw the French state-owned monopoly on tobacco (SEITA) and the resulting income stream to the State generated by the sale of tobacco products. Nevertheless, the pressure from the World Health Organisation, the Académie nationale de médecine and a number of cancerologists and pneumologists such as Maurice Tubiana as well as a range of tobacco control associations such as the  Comité National Contre le Tabagisme or the Ligue against public smoking was mounting, amplified by the steps taken in other Western countries. In 1975, a mere few weeks after she had had the right to abort enshrined in law on 17 January 1975, Simone Veil decided to launch the first campaign for tobacco control in France. Announced at the beginning of the year the campaign was finally launched on 16 September 1975. Disseminating information via all available media (television, radio, posters, mobile exhibitions) the campaign had three aims: raising public awareness, educating women and youth as well as protecting non-smokers. To that end, a bill was presented during the year 1976. Passed into law on 9 July 1976 and registered in the Journal Officiel on 10 July, Law n°76-616 concerning tobacco control, known as the Loi Veil, provides, among other things, for the restriction of advertising, the insertion of messages on cigarettes packs, a ban on sport sponsorships, restrictions on public smoking and the launch of several public information campaigns the first of which opened in October 1976 with the slogan  “Sans tabac, prenons la vie à pleins poumons” (tobacco free, breathe easy).


   The Veil Law met its objectives of public information towards slowing consumption. However, the impact on tobacco consumption did not match anticipations as the Law only achieved the stabilisation of consumption at 1975-76 level, probably because of the many advantages still enjoyed by the tobacco industry. It was accordingly decided in the late 80s to reinforce the Loi Veil, opening the way, on 10 January 1991, to the Loi Evin against tobacco consumption and alcoholism.


Read the paper in french : Loi Veil 1976

Read further in the dictionnary : Aerobics - Obesity

Antoine Thomas - Le Mans Université

Références :

Eric Godeau, Le tabac en France de 1940 à nos jours. Histoire d'un marché, Paris, PUPS, 2008.

Jean-François Lemaire, Le tabagisme, Paris, PUF, collection « Que sais-je ? », 1980 (5e édition, 1999).

To quote this paper : Antoine Thomas, "Tobacco control" in Hervé Guillemain (ed.), DicoPolHiS, Le Mans Université, 2021.

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