Smokers can incur heavy fines under the ban [AFP]

French smokers who have vowed to kick the habit as their new year resolution may find the task slightly easier after a nationwide ban on smoking in restaurants and cafes came into effect.

The ban signals a sizeable cultural shift, particularly in Paris where cafe society and  cigarettes have traditionally gone hand-in-hand.

"It's an enjoyable moment that is now gone forever: smoking over coffee," Brigitte Caboulet, said while puffing on her cigarette outside a Paris boulevard on Tuesday.

"I'll get used to it," Thomas Sechet, said tossing his cigarette butt on the pavement. "We've known for a while that this was coming."

Despite some opposition, opinion polls show broad support for the ban, which came into effect with the ringing in of the New Year, 11 months after France banned smoking in workplaces, shops and other public areas.

German ban

Under France's anti-tobacco law, cafes, restaurants and nightclubs were given more time to set up separate smoking areas with ventilators, but few have taken on the large renovation and equipment costs.

Kicking the habit


Ireland banned smoking in all enclosed spaces in 2004.

The UK followed with a ban.

Italy, Malta, Sweden, Estonia and Finland all have bans but allow smoking in special closed sections.

Belgium, Lithuania, Spain, Cyprus, Slovenia and the Netherlands all have bans but make exceptions for certain parts of the hospitality sector.

Germany, Portugal and France are the latest countries to introduce bans.

Also on Tuesday, a smoking ban in cafes and restaurants went into effect across several regions of Germany and in Portugal.

Many countries in Europe have imposed bans since Ireland outlawed tobacco in public places in 2004.

The French government however gave some respite to New Year's revellers who failed to stub out at the stroke of midnight, saying it would enforce the ban starting on Wednesday.

This prompted some cafe owners to keep the ashtrays out for one final day.

As of Wednesday, smokers who light up in public places face  fines of up to $645 while business owners can incur even higher penalties.

There are about 13.5 million smokers in France, in a population of 60 million.

Protective measure

Up until the last-minute, some groups representing cafe owners had appealed to the government to ease the ban, arguing that it would cut business and drive some establishments to bankruptcy.

"To throw our customers out in the street to smoke is tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot," Rene Le Pape, the president of the Confederation of Tobacconists, said.

"Our objective isn't to annoy people, but to protect them," Roselyne Bachelot, the health minister, said.

"We shouldn't forget that every year 66,000 deaths are caused from smoking and 5,000 from second-hand smoke."

In anticipation of the growing legions of smokers puffing out in the cold, Paris city authorities announced plans to distribute 10,000 "pocket ashtrays" in the coming weeks to ensure the capital's pavements are not littered with cigarette butts.

The small round ashtray tins are designed to fit nicely in trouser pockets but can still hold butts from several cigarettes, say city authorities.

Source: Agencies