Several tobacco shops that stayed shut on Monday in the Latin Quarter of Paris stuck up posters accusing the government of hypocrisy.

   

Referring to a concurrent decision to cut income tax, the posters said, "They're taking from our pockets taxes they claim to be cutting elsewhere."

 

The posters read: "Your tobacco vendor is on strike. 'No' to excessive and systematic tax increases."

 

State-controlled

   

Strike response figures were unavailable early on Monday, but the Confederation of Tobacco Outlets of France was counting on a halt in sales by about three-quarters of 34,000 outlets that sell tobacco under a state-controlled distribution system.

   

In Paris, participation in the strike looked low in the morning, with barely half the outlets closing or covering up their cigarette displays.

   

Defending the latest in a string of hefty tax raises that are being used to plug a huge deficit in public healthcare finances, Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei went on radio to condemn smoking as a killer habit.

   

"It's time to act. Nine in 10 smokers begin before 18 and half of them will die of cancer," he said on RTL radio.

   

"They're taking from our pockets taxes they claim to be cutting elsewhere"

French posters

The tax raise of 18-20% took the price of a top brand packet of 20 cigarettes to about 4.60 euros from 3.90. Further raises in January are expected to push the price to five euros, compared to a price nearer three euros just 12 months ago.

   

The latest price increase puts France up near the top of the league table for cigarette prices in Western Europe, but still behind some countries like Norway and Britain.

   

Mattei said it was possible the January raise could be postponed slightly.

   

Tobacco vendors, often cafes which devote a corner of their premises to sales of cigarettes, fear that rising prices will prompt more smokers to buy on the black market or across the border in Italy, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg.

    

An earlier raise in taxes in January contributed to an 8% fall in cigarette sales.

 

The government has pledged 120 million euros of aid to the sector, but tobacconists say that is not enough.