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Smoking in France


Ismael from California asks:

I work at an outlet in California. We attract many tourists and I have noticed that many of our French tourists smoke a lot. This makes me wonder because here in America (at least in California where I live), it is socially unacceptable to smoke in public. In fact, many people would give a negative verbal reaction to someone who lit a cigarette next to them. I have to say that I don’t appreciate smoking as the smell is rather unpleasant and secondhand smoke is deadly. I wouldn’t react this way normally. I would just walk away or politely ask someone to stop because I have respiratory problems (but that isn’t the case for most people.)
Why do a lot of French people still smoke? Here, children are trained to run from cigarettes. Cigarettes get a lot of bad propaganda here. Here, we are constantly reminded that smoking causes cancer, damages the environment, and kills people. Is there not as much propaganda against it? Do most French people just disregard these warnings? Is cancer less prevalent in France because of the different lifestyles it leads? Is smoking a social (one that makes you look cool) activity in France?


Ask a FrenchmanHa! Smoking…

We all know that the French love spending time in café terraces, reading Sartre, eating, drinking and… smoking… Right? Right?

Mmmm… Actually, the “smokers” vs “non-smokers” debate has been raging in France for many years, both sides being pretty much irreconcilable! Friendships have ended because of a cigarette! Marriages too… Well, in that case, we can suspect that the cigarette was used as proof of cheating or something like that.

And despite the appearances, the non-smoking side is slowly but surely winning the war.

First of all, you live in California, and I don’t know if you go out-of-state much, but last time I was in the US (I know, it’s been a few years now), on the East Coast, while there were fewer smokers than in France, smoking habits were not as different from the ones that can be seen in France (and they’re both very different from the ones in California from what I’ve heard), with one major exception though, American smokers respect their non-smoking counterparts.

So sure, compared to California, France must look like smoking heaven or smoking hell, depending on what side you’re on.

Why is that?

Let’s start with some cold hard facts, also named “numbers” and “statistics”. French people don’t actually smoke as much as one may think (remember, the “loud minority” effect, you will notice the few smokers more than the many non-smokers).

Let’s look at the approximate percentages of smokers in a few countries in 2009 (sources WHO)

  • France: 32%
  • USA: 23% (and as it’s most likely lower in California, that means it has to be higher in other parts of the country)
  • China 31.5% (but more than 60% of men for only 3% of women! In almost every country, men smoke more than women, but this one may be the biggest difference)
  • Austria: 43%
  • Germany: 32%
  • Greece: 51%
  • Russia: 48% (70% for men!)
  • United Kingdom: 35%

According to the numbers I have, the country where men smoke the most is Russia and the country where men smoke the least is Ethiopia (only 7% smoke).

The country where women smoke the most is Nauru (52%), and then Austria (40%). The countries where women smoke the least are Algeria and Morocco, 0.3% (yes it’s true that North African women don’t smoke at all for some reason, it’s really a men thing in their culture).

Another interesting statistic is the number of cigarettes smoked in one year.

France is ranked 58th with 854 cigarettes per person a year, and the US is ranked… 51st! With 1028 cigarettes. (You can check the whole rankings there)

Still, a lot of French people still smoke, why is that?

Well, I’m not totally sure, except because “old habits die hard”.

The thing is that cigarettes have been getting bad publicity in France for a while now. Since 2007, it has been illegal to smoke in any public building. There were other less restrictive (but still restrictive) laws before that. Advertising for cigarettes has been outlawed in 1991. France has known and publicized the fact that cigarettes cause cancer way before the US ever did (it was a time when France was not run by lobbies yet, while the US already were).

And yet, a lot of French people still smoke.

Well, fewer people smoke every year (I’m sure that when I was a kid the number of smokers was closer to 50%), but the numbers are slow to drop.

Why is that?

I’m really not sure. I mean, a lot of teenagers start smoking because they think it’s cool, it makes them feel more important, more “adult”, but at the same time more rebellious against adults, and then when they’re adults, they’d like to quit, but it’s too late; they’re addicted.

There are also a bunch of people who don’t want to quit, despite the fact that they know the risks and the fact that cigarettes are getting really expensive. Apparently, this is the best deterrent that the government has found to reduce smoking: €5 packs, or even more, as there isn’t any smoker in my social circle – see, not so many people smoke in France – I haven’t kept track of the prices in a while.

So why do the people who don’t want to quit, don’t want to quit?

I’m sure the very French habit of doing the opposite of what they are told plays a big part here.

Also, France is not as health-obsessed as Americans (and especially Californians) can be, and the “you gotta die from something anyway” argument is not an uncommon one. And as French people are less likely to die from being gunned down, eating crappy processed GMOed food or lack of proper health-care than most Americans are (and bears too, French people are less likely to die from a bear attack than Americans are), they see smoking as a reasonable risk to take in the choices they make in their lives.

Apart from that, I’m not sure why smokers smoke, I always thought it was one of the stupidest things to do and one of the stupidest ways to throw your money through the window.

However, if there are any French smokers reading this, please feel free to give us your two cents in the comments.


Serge Gainsbourg (1928 -1991) had elevated to the whole “cliché of the French smoker” to an art form. He also died from it.



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