French court rules that e-cigarettes are tobacco products in landmark ruling in which Toulouse store banned from selling or advertising products after complaint by nearby tobacconist
By Henry Samuel, Paris 9:21PM GMT 09 Dec 2013 telegraph.co.uk
A French tobacconist won a landmark court case on Monday to stop a nearby shop selling e-cigarettes after a court ruled it was unfair competition as the devices amounted to tobacco products.
The ruling has infuriated e-cigarette vendors after months of heated debate in France and Europe over the legal definition of the devices and how freely they should be sold.
It could see a rash of court cases from among France’s 27,000 tobacconists, many of whom already sell e-cigarettes but want the exclusive right to do so.
In the landmark case, Annie Pontus, the plaintiff who runs a tobacconist in the town of Plaisance-du-Touch near Toulouse, south-west France, had sued a nearby shop, called Esmokeclean, which opened in June.
She accused its owners of breaching the legal monopoly on the sale of tobacco products in accredited outlets by promoting their wares in their shop, on Facebook and on their internet site.
“We don’t have the right to advertise but these people, who sell nicotine-based products, do,” she said, arguing that this was unfair.
Her lawyer said that e-cigarettes and their liquids contain nicotine, and thus should be placed in the same legal bracket as tobacco products.
She also called on the government to limit the sale of the devices exclusively to tobacconists, as in the case of cigarettes.
Esmokeclean argued that e-cigarettes are currently in a “legal vacuum” and therefore should not fall under the tobacconist’s monopoly.
But on Monday, the Toulouse court ruled that despite containing no tobacco, e-cigarettes were substitute tobacco products. As a result, they should be subject to France’s state imposed monopoly on tobacco, which stipulates cigarettes and other products can only be sold in registered outlets.
The store’s lawyer announced an immediate appeal meaning for the moment the court’s judgment is not applicable. But it could eventually see the distribution of e-cigarettes limited to a state-imposed monopoly on tobacco sales.
Pascal Montredon, the president of the French confederation of tobacconists, welcomed the ruling as “excellent news”.
But Benjamin Echalier, lawyer for Reynald Pirat, one of the store owners, denounced it as “absurd and abhorrent” and one that “goes against what is tending to be decided on a European level”.
CACE, a body representing e-cigarette vendors in France, slammed the verdict as “scandalous”.
“The e-cigarette is an everyday consumer product and not a tobacoo product.
“The (court) has thus overstepped its powers by applying the status of tobacco product to the electronic cigarette,” it said, adding that it was confident that the ruling would be quashed on appeal.
This is the latest chapter in an increasingly acrimonious battle between those selling conventional tobacco cigarettes and battery-powered electronic cigarettes, which release vapour.
It comes after the European Parliament recently ruled that e-cigarettes were not in fact medicinal and could therefore remain on open sale, not just in tobacconists.
There are an estimated 1.5 million users of e-cigarettes in France and almost one in five French adults has tried the device, according to a recent poll.