France’s love affair with cigarettes could go up in smoke

A man  holds a cigarette as he sits in a cafe in Paris.
Kenzo Tribouillard | AFP | Getty Images
A man holds a cigarette as he sits in a cafe in Paris.

PARIS – The glamorous image of cool Parisians lighting up Gauloises while lingering at an outdoor cafe may soon go up in smoke. The French government is stubbing out the country’s love affair with tobacco.

"In France, tobacco kills 200 people every day,” Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said in May. “We need to continue this fight against one of the biggest scourges of public health.”

In recent years, France has moved to feature gruesome photos of diseased lungs on cigarette packs, among other deterrent measures such as government reimbursement of cessation aids. Steep taxes are on track to push the cost of a pack of cigarettes from about $9 to $12 by 2020.

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The measures appear to be working.

The number of daily smokers in France dropped to 12.2 million last year from 13.2 million in 2016, according to the latest figures released in May by the French Health Ministry.

Still, 27 percent of the French continue to light up daily, one of the highest rates of smoking in the European Union, behind Greece and Bulgaria. Sweden has the lowest proportion at 7 percent, according to the EU.

In the USA, 14 percent of the population smokes cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We must drop down to the rates of Anglo-Saxon countries, to around 15-16 percent,” Buzyn said.

That’s not an easy goal in France, since it would mean changing the long-entrenched cafe culture the French seem reluctant to give up.

Tucked in the residential neighborhood behind Montmartre Hill – an area once frequented by Pablo Picasso and other artists – is the 1930s-era cafe La Renaissance, known by residents for its laid-back atmosphere and by movie buffs for being featured in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds.”

No matter the weather, the outdoor tables are always packed with customers puffing away while chatting with friends or watching the world go by.

Since smoking was outlawed inside public spaces in 2007, smokers have had to light up outdoors, though some venues allow smokers to indulge in their habit inside after officially closing for the day.

“Smoking is one of life’s pleasures and part of the ritual of meeting among friends,” said Benjamin Gourio, 44, a communication consultant who said he has no plans to give up his two-pack-a-day habit. “I have been smoking since I was 16. It was pleasurable to meet with friends after school and have a smoke.”

His sister, Sylvie Gourio, 46, has no regrets about quitting her pack-a-day habit, which she started while in high school, like many in France. “I had to stop smoking, because I didn’t have a choice. My doctor warned me I faced living with respiratory failure if I didn’t give up,” she said.

Two years ago, she began a program with a government-backed organization that offers free support to quit smoking. The group offers regular counseling sessions, nicotine patches and chewing gum.

As a result, she has been smoke-free ever since and discovered a few unexpected benefits.

“I have recovered my sense of smell. It’s nice to be able to smell freshly baked bread at the boulangerie,” she said, referring to France's small bakeries. “I have also taken up sports, like running, swimming and judo, which in a way have replaced my cigarette addiction.”

It’s a trend that increasingly resonates with French urban millennials, who are far more health-oriented and environmentally aware than older generations. Vegan and gluten-free cafes, along with juice bars are fast replacing traditional bistros as favorite hangouts in Paris. These days it’s not unheard of to swap a leisurely lunch – once a staple of French life – to go to the gym.

“The new generations have a different attitude and will change the image of the 1960s French, sitting at a cafe with a drink and a cigarette,” said Christophe Cutarella, an addiction psychiatrist and member of the scientific board at the Ramsay Generale de Sante Foundation, a hospital group.

The changes in behavior are reflected in the declining number of younger smokers. Last year, the number of male smokers ages 18 to 24 dropped to 35%, compared with 44% in 2016.

Whipping out a cigarette has become less cool, said Emmanuelle Beguinot, director of anti-smoking association CNCT.

“Even if tobacco consumption remains important in France," she said, "its image is not what it used to be.”