Smoking was banned in restaurants and al
fresco eating became all the rage. It was banned in offices, and business
started getting done in huddles on the sidewalk.
The French, legend had it, were more likely
to give up having affairs than stub out their smoking habit.
Consumption of alcohol has been falling
steadily for years. Waistlines are trimmer than anywhere else in the western
world and armies of joggers pound the nation's pavements every weekend.
200 premature deaths per day
Yet paradoxically one of the most health-conscious nations on the planet has long appeared indifferent to the
implications of smoking, a habit that kills 200 French people prematurely every
Read: Smokers go virtual to kick habit
Almost uniquely for a developed country,
the proportion of adults who regularly smoke actually went up in the three
years after a comprehensive ban on smoking in workplaces and other enclosed
public spaces was introduced (in 2007).
Passive smoking – at the entrance to the
office, in bus and train stations or on the haze-filled terraces of almost
every cafe – is as unavoidable in Paris as the piles of megots (butts) that
now collect in the gutters as they once did at the base of the capital's
Complain and the likely response will be a
Gallic shrug: That is just how things are in France.
Change may be afoot
Or rather, how they were. Finally, it
seems, change may be afoot in the land of Gauloises and Gitanes.
Figures published last week by the national
drugs watchdog (OFDT) revealed that, in 2013, the number of cigarettes sold in
France fell by 7.6%.
Sales of rolling tobacco continue to rise
but, at 2.6%, more slowly than in recent years.
And for the first time since 2005, the
overall value of tobacco sales shrank last year.
One survey put the proportion of adults who
smoke every day at around 27%, down from over 33% in 2010.
Read: Quitting smoking improves mood
Health experts say it is too early to say
for sure if a corner has been turned. Survey results vary and the line between
regular (daily) and occasional smoking is hard for researchers to assess
But it does seem that the combined impact
of recent price hikes (at a time of economic stagnation) and the phenomenal
success of e-cigarettes may be encouraging millions of French fumeurs to reassess their relationship with les clopes
(slang word for cigarettes).
E-cigarettes allow users to simulate the
experience of smoking while inhaling a vaporised mix of nicotine and
They carry health risks of their own and
the jury is still out on whether they help people give up smoking for good. But
they have really taken off in France and some experts believe they provide a
valuable bridge to total abstinence.
99 million French adults have
tried them and between one and two million puff them on a daily basis,
according to an OFDT survey.
"Anything that reduces the number of
cigarettes smoked is good news," said Professor Bertrand Dautzenberg, a
lung specialist who chairs the anti-smoking Office Francais du Tabagisme.
He believes e-cigarettes can be a useful
complement to other methods of helping smokers quit such as nicotine inhalers,
tablets and patches.
"Many don't like the feeling of having
vapour in the throat, but those that do like it, really like it," he said.
price hikes ahead
After years of ambivalent attitudes and
incoherent policies, it seems too that the authorities have finally woken up to
the need for radical action if France is to catch up with neighbouring Britain,
where fewer than one in five adults now smoke.
A commission of the French Senate last week
called for the pace of recent price hikes, which have lifted the cost of a
packet of 20 Marlboro, the market leader, to seven euros, to be
Read: What's the latest on the e-cigarette?
If adopted as part of a new national
anti-cancer plan due to be announced by the government before the summer, the
Senate recommendation would lift the price of that same packet to more than 11
euros within five years.
Britain's successful mix of public
education campaigns, tax hikes and specialist support for those who want to
stop won praise in a report last year by France's state spending watchdog.
In the same report, the Cour des Comptes
lambasted successive French administrations for their ineffective policies.
Damningly, the watchdog revealed that,
between 2004-11, 2.6 billion Euros were spent compensating tobacconists for an
anticipated tax-driven reduction in sales that never happened.
The total was three times the amount spent
on anti-smoking education campaigns over the same period.
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