The French and smoking: Is France really 'Europe's chimney'

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The French and smoking: Is France really 'Europe's chimney'
French actress Brigitte Bardot lights up a film set, but times have changed since the heedy and very smokey 1960s. Photo: AFP

France: good food, good wine and cigarettes. This has been the accepted view of L'Héxagone ever since Gainsbourg and Bardot graced TV screens, sporting sultry expressions and half-smoked gauloises. Amaryllis Barton looks at whether France really is Europe's chimney.


'Smoking in France was so much of an issue scientists have even invented a name for it: the French paradox. The paradox consists how the French seem to smoke so many cigarettes but don't appear to be affected by their adverse effects at the same rate as their European counterparts.

There are two ways of looking at this paradox: either the French cancer care system is vastly superior to those in neighbouring countries, or scientists have fallen victim to the stereotype that France is still the tobacco haven it was back in the 1960s.

The fact that smoking has plummeted by as much as 60% since Gérard Depardieu was born suggests it is the latter. 

In line with most European countries, France is less keen on lighting up than it once was. Its annual health report shows that the number of people lighting up regularly is no greater than the 2013 WHO official European average of 28%.

Gerard Audereau, president of the anti-smoking group "Droits des Non Fumeurs" (Rights of non-smokers) tells The Local that 47 billion cigarettes are lit up in France each year, a steep drop from the 84 billion smoked in 2001.

These statistics would suggest that France seems to have an unfair reputation as the chimney of Europe.

Given the stats, why then do French people seem to smoke conspicuously more than the British, or Americans? Tourists visiting France frequently cite smoking as the first culture shock they experience when they set foot on French soil, or perhaps simply when they step on a discarded cigarette butt.

A survey by travel website Tripadvisor revealed that users found that France was by far the "smokiest" country in the world.

DNF's Audureau suggests it may be to with the fact that although France has a smoking ban, it is not rigorously enforced and many cafes have simply built 'indoor' terraces to get around the law.

"France is the country that introduces the most restrictions on smokers, but does the least to enforce them," he said.

Young French smokers buck the trend 

Another reason to explain the reputation could be the regular sight of young French people lighting up.

Whereas Britain and Germany have halved the rate of smoking for young people, France's 2011 government health report  reveals that French teens and students are still smoking at an alarming rate: 29 % of students smoke in France, a whopping 9% higher than the overall rate of smoking in the UK.

Equally, France might proudly claim to have reduced its youth smoking rates to below 40%, yet only 12% of German youngsters between the ages of 12 and 17 years lit up in the past decade- with over 70% never even having tried a cigarette. Compare that to the fact the average age for experimenting with tobacco in France is just over 13 and half, and it's easy to see why France may seem to be a smoking haven.

Another demographic difference is that France is rare among European countries in having a stable number of adult female smokers.

Only Czech and Italian women are quite so chained to their cigarettes, according to OECD reports; in other countries, notably Britain, the number of female smokers has noticeably fallen.

Perhaps the fact that France simply doesn't follow the same smoking stereotypes as other countries explains, in part, why the stereotype of the French smoker has endured so long after the demise of the famous French tobacco companies such as Gauloise (ignominiously bought by Britain's Imperial Tobacco in 2008).

French still have a love for nicotine

But even if the French are smoking less cigarettes, the French obsession with nicotine hasn't quite disappeared, it seems.

A 2013 Ipsos survey showed that around one million French people use e-cigarettes regularly, a significant proportion of the 29 million Europeans who 'vape' each day and rather more than the circa 700,000 users in neighbouring Spain.

So don't be surprised if no-one asks you for a light in a French cafe. They're probably puffing away on the sickly sweet vapour of an e-cigarette

The steep rise in the number of users of the devices has not gone unnoticed by the government with Health Minister Maurisol Touraine reiterating her desire, earlier this year, to ban e-cigarettes in public places.

With more and more French puffing on e-cigs it's only likely to perpetuate the idea they are a nation of fumeurs, even if the Gauloise cigarettes of the 60s have been replaced by strawberry or raspberry flavoured electronic devices.

So as for the reputation of France as Europe's chimney?

"You can't really say France is a country of smokers," says DNF's Audureau. "That would be Greece, or countries in central Europe, Spain and Portugal."

This article was originally published in 2014.





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