Covid halted France's efforts to cut smoking levels

The Local France
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Covid halted France's efforts to cut smoking levels
A cigarette smoker is pictured on March 1, 2018, in Lille, northern France (Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP)

France may no longer be 'the chimney of Europe', but years of falling smoking rates have been halted by the pandemic and lockdowns, causing concern to public health experts.


French smoking habits are often among the first things to strike foreigners arriving in L'Hexagon, with the waft of cigarette smoke from a café terrace one of the defining smells of the country. Though France had been making progress on discouraging smoking in the last decade, recently the country has stagnated in its efforts to cut back on les clopes.

As of 2020, about 31.8 percent of adults (ages 18-75) in France smoke and 24 percent percent are daily smokers - by contrast Americans and Brits' national smoking habits have fallen below 15 percent.

READ MORE: The French and smoking: Is France really ‘Europe’s chimney

However, in comparison to its European counterparts, France is certainly not the 'chimney of Europe,' as shown in the graph below that outlines daily cigarette consumption in the EU.



In terms of trends, French cigarette consumption declined every year from 2014 to 2019.

For Viêt Nguyen Thanh, head of the Addictions Unit for the 'Prevention and Health Promotion Directorate' at Santé publique France, this is evidence that the national program to prevent tobacco consumption, which went into effect in 2014, was effective.

"It was the first time there was a nationwide, coordinated attempt to decrease tobacco usage," said Nguyen Thanh. "It is thanks to this that we saw a very important drop in tobacco usage between 2014 and 2019."

Over the years, the French government has taken several steps to combat tobacco usage. One of the most important was the "Loi Evin," a 1991 law that placed restrictions on cigarette advertising. Smoking is also prohibited in all enclosed public places, including cafés and restaurants, as well as on public transport, in schools, and in the workplace.

Since smoking is relegated to the outdoors, it generally now takes place on café terraces - even if some of these 'terraces' have three walls and a roof. This whiff of cigarette smoke is still a very common experience when walking down a French street.


In 2017, France also took the step of requiring "plain packaging" on cigarette containers. The French government has also dissuaded many would-be smokers with heavy taxes on cigarettes. The size of the tax is progressive, and right now a single packet of cigarettes is about €10.

According to the French health ministry, higher tobacco taxes discouraged at least one million daily smokers between 2016-2017. 

Since the Covid pandemic, which culminated in strict lockdowns and curfews throughout France, smoking habits have actually stopped going down and in fact have stabilised. Quarantine periods were particularly challenging, with nearly 4 out of 10 French people reporting that they had difficulty controlling their tobacco consumption during periods of confinement.

Another survey by Santé Publique France found that 27 percent of smokers saw their tobacco consumption increase during the confinement. This increase was most noticeable among 25-34 year olds (41 percent) and people working at home (37 percent).

Smoking habits in France are also particularly pronounced when looking at gender and social class.

Between 2019 and 2020, daily tobacco consumption increased by three points for working class people, specifically the third of the French population with the lowest income. This mirrors trends in other countries, like the United States. According to the CDC, "blue-collar workers are more likely to start smoking cigarettes at a younger age and to smoke more heavily than white-collar workers."

READ MORE: MAP: The places in France where people smoke the most

When it comes to gender, French men are both more likely to be smokers - 36.2 percent of men versus 27.7 percent of women - and more likely to suffer health consequences from smoking. 

Ultimately, despite tobacco usage being significantly lower than it was 10 years ago, experts still see cause a need for further efforts. Viêt Nguyen Thanh still considers French smoking levels to be "very high."



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