Smoking in France

Whenever I think about France, I think about the Eiffel Tower, good food, good wine and cigarettes.  It feels like there is a myth that the French are always smoking which comes mainly, at least to foreigners, from watching French films. With its cafe culture and chain-smoking Nouvelle Vague movie stars, France earned a reputation as a smokers’ paradise after World War Two. Iconic dark-tobacco brands like Gitanes, preferred by Gainsbourg, who smoked up to five packs a day, and Gauloises, best-liked by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, came to be hugely popular, in part thanks to their really stylish packaging. French seem to be heavy smokers. The president of the anti-smoking group Droits des Non Fumeurs (Rights of Non-Smokers), Gerard Audereau, states that more than 47 billion cigarettes are smoked in France every year.  Every year, more than 73500 of people in France are killed by tobacco-caused disease. That is the equivalent of an airliner crash per day, with 200 passengers on board! Still, more than 130000 children (10-14 years old) and 12137000 adults (15+ years old) continue to use tobacco each day.

The economic cost of smoking in France amounts to 49922 million euro. This includes direct costs related to healthcare expenditures and indirect costs related to lost productivity due to early mortality and morbidity. Even with these numbers the truth is that smoking has plummeted by as much as 60% since the 1960s. 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%.  Less than a third of the population now lights up regularly. “These statistics would suggest that France seems to have an unfair reputation as the chimney of Europe” reported Audereau.

Smoking banned in France

With more than a third of French people saying they are smokers, and nearly 80,000 deaths a year, smoking is damaging France’s health. To combat the scourge, the government has deployed a raft of significant measures, including a tripling of reimbursements for nicotine substitutes like patches, pregnant woman logos on cigarette packets, and smoking bans in children’s play areas. France has banned smoking in public places since 2006 in line with the rest of Europe. Tough anti-tobacco laws were introduced way back in 1976 with the Viel law, restricting smoking on public transport.

In 1991 in what was called the Évin law which banned smoking in public places, forced cigarette manufacturers to display health warnings on packets and forbade large-scale advertising on billboards and TV. The Évin law is named after Claude Évin, the minister who pushed for it. The law leaves certain important criteria on what is allowed or not with respect to smoking sections to executive-issued regulations. Under the Évin law, restaurants, cafés etc. just had to provide smoking and non-smoking sections, which in practice were often not well separated. In larger establishments, smoking and non-smoking sections could be separate rooms, but often they were just areas within the same room. The law wasn’t particularly well enforced and the result was pretty ineffective, with the French happily continuing to puff away everywhere, whenever they wanted.

  More Restrictions

By 2006, public pressure and changing attitudes were having an effect. A much stronger law was passed banning smoking in enclosed public places such as those restaurants and bars as well as schools and government buildings. While an estimated 70% of French people supported the ban debate still raged about this drastic change to the French way of life. Smoking and vaping are banned in all indoor public places (government buildings, offices, public transportation, universities, museums, restaurants, cafés, night clubs, etc.). Cafés and shops selling tobacco-related products are submitted to the same regulations. No exceptions exist for special smoking rooms fulfilling strict conditions. Additionally, some outdoor public places also ban smoking and vaping (train stations). In June 2014 smoking was banned in children’s playgrounds as France’s anti-smoking laws become stricter. At the same time, smoking in cars carrying children was also banned.

Neutral packaging was introduced in 2017 which rids cigarette packs of logos and designs and replace them with graphic health warnings in the hopes of making them less appealing to the consumer. The Government is determined to fight against smoking, which kills more than 70,000 people in France each year. This is why it has decided to increase gradually the cost of a packet of cigarettes to 10 euros. “France is one of the slowest learners in the world on smoking,” the minister, Agnes Buzyn, said. “Big price rises will be needed to have an impact on public health.” The government finds hope in public opinion surveys that show increased numbers of French intend to quit – and that sales of nicotine patches and nicotine chewing gum have increased.



But even if the French are smoking less cigarettes because of the restrictions and new attitudes, the French obsession with nicotine hasn’t quite disappeared, it seems.

“France is the country that introduces the most restrictions on smokers, but does the least to enforce them,” said Gerard Audereau. Although France has a smoking ban, it is not rigorously enforced and many cafes have simply built ‘indoor’ terraces to get around the law. Even though fewer people die from tobacco in France than on average in very high human development index countries, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in France. Tobacco still kills 1410 French every week, necessitating action from policymakers.

Smoking is cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory failure, infectious diseases and is killing one in two tobacco consumers. It kills twenty times more than road accidents, even though it is preventable. People living with mental illness are nearly twice as likely to smoke as other individuals. To appeal to more customers, the tobacco industry markets its products aggressively to women and children.

France’s 2011 government health report reveals that French teens and students are smoking at an alarming rate of 29 %. France might proudly claim to have reduced its youth smoking rates to below 40%, yet the average age for experimenting with tobacco in France is just over 13 and half. France has an arsenal of tough anti-smoking laws. But they’re not enforced or backed up with public information campaigns. For too many young people, smoking isn’t toxic, it’s glamorous. Also, France has a stable number of female smokers. More women and girls smoke in France than on other European countries.

Buying tobacco robs families of the resources they may need to rise out of poverty. A smoker in France would have to spend 3.71% of their average income to purchase 10 of the most popular cigarettes to smoke daily each year! There were 16.77 billion cigarettes produced in France in 2016. Cigarette imports exceeded cigarette exports in France in 2016, which hurt the country’s trade balance.

Each year 4,900 City of Paris employees collect 350 tonnes of cigarette butts on the city’s 2,900km of sidewalks and 1,600km of roads, the City of Paris said in a statement. “Apart from being visual pollution, these butts are a significant environmental pollutant as they contain toxic products that go into the ground and water,” the statement said.

French health minister, Agnès Buzyn, even considers banning smoking from films. “We know that major advertising campaigns (to encourage people to quit cigarettes) do not work,” she said, adding that other methods such as targeting young people on social media or banning cigarettes from the big screen should be tried. Many people have commented or protested at the anti-smoking law. Licensed tobacconists were the main protesters. They used tactics that the French farmers use to such good effect. The tobacconists dumped four tons of carrots outside the Socialist Party’s Paris headquarters. The French got the significance of the carrot; it’s apparently what they call the long red symbol that hangs outside ‘tabacs’ and bars carrying tobacco products in France.

 French and their cigarettes

Some sociologists believe that the cultural image of beautiful French actresses such as Brigitte Bardot, smoking on television commercials from the 1960s, an era of high prosperity in France, is more powerful than many people think. The stereotype of the French smoker has endured so long after the demise of the famous French tobacco companies such as Gauloise.

The experience of smoking is multifaceted and deeply personal. Therefore, the solutions offered by the French government have to reflect an understanding of that experience, what smokers need, and what they want as they try to quit. Reducing smoking habits in France is proving to be more difficult than previously envisioned. plain packaging of cigarettes has only caused a dent in tobacco purchases, which are down by less than one percent.

In France, e-cigarettes are hugely popular. A survey carried out by Ipsos in December 2013 revealed one in five French people – that is around 10 million. 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. 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.

The steep rise in the number of users of the electronic cigarettes has not gone unnoticed by the government with Health Minister Maurisol Touraine reiterating her desire, to ban e-cigarettes in public places. The anti-smoking movement continues to gain popularity, so much so that the French Ministry of Health has introduced a website called Ma Terrasse Sans Tabac which lists nearby bars and restaurants that prohibit smoking on their outdoor terraces. A press release from the Health Ministry explained that the new resource would “allow the French to find terraces that are totally or partially smoke free”.

France has made progress on tobacco control in recent years. However, people continue to die and become sick needlessly, and the costs to society from tobacco use continue to mount.  France can still do more to make the proven tobacco control tools work for its citizens’ wellbeing. Smoking is deeply integrated into most smokers’ daily lives, so quitting means more to them than just giving up cigarettes. Smoking isn’t an isolated habit. Many French consider smoking is deeply integrated with their basic pleasures of life, such as eating, drinking, and socializing. Currently implemented cessation methods fail to take these into account, resulting in continued smoking.

France has come a long way since the days of smoke filled bars and restaurants. It is a noble attempt at reducing nicotine addiction in France, but, Will the French ever give up their beloved cigarettes? Everybody thought that the French, with their well-publicized defiance of the authorities, would not follow the law. But they did, and the smoke-filled, smelly places of the past became smoke-free, delightful places to spend time in. As French smoking rates have declined, so has the country’s once-vibrant tobacco industry. The state-owned Seita brand that produced Gauloises and Gitanes was bought by Britain’s Imperial Tobacco in 2008, and much of its production moved abroad.

Somehow, I think the benefits are most enjoyed by non-smokers and not those who stubbornly insist on keeping up their habit. You will still find people in partially covered or open-air terraces still lighting up with their cafe au lait or espresso, so it’s not all over yet. We might regret the passing of those iconic Gitanes, Gaulouise and Boyards (a wonderfully packaged brand), but it’s part of the very necessary campaign to stop people smoking. 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.