PARIS (Reuters) - Cigarette sales in France dropped to a record low in 2008, research by British American Tobacco (BAT) shows, challenging old cliches of Parisians hooked to their Gitanes in smoke-filled cafes.
BAT cited bans on smoking in bars and public places as well as high prices as factors encouraging the formerly smoking-mad French to stub out their cigarettes for good.
BAT France said 54.4 billion cigarettes were sold last year in France, down 2.3 percent from 2007. In 1998, almost 85 billion cigarettes were sold in France.
A ban on smoking in most public places came into force in early 2007, followed by a ban on smoking in bars and cafes at the start of last year, as part of government efforts to reduce smoking for health reasons.
"The French market has never been at such a low," BAT said in a statement. "And analysis shows that, when it comes to tobacco, what is lost is never regained."
This winter, many Paris cafes have equipped their outdoor seating areas -- where smoking is still allowed -- with heaters so customers can keep puffing away while enjoying a coffee or glass of wine in the cold weather.
The price of cigarettes, which are heavily taxed, has risen steadily in recent years. The average price of a packet was 5.30 euros last year, up from 2.96 euros a decade earlier.
Cigarette sales in France do not tell the whole story, however, as some French smokers prefer to buy packets abroad where they are cheaper.
"It is clear that from the moment that prices go up in France, people will cross the border where they can get cigarettes more cheaply," said BAT France's head of institutional relations, Yves Trevilly.
He said almost one in four cigarettes smoked in France last year was bought abroad, mainly in Spain, Luxembourg and Belgium.
(Reporting by Caroline Jacobs, editing by Estelle Shirbon and Nicholas Vinocur)