I first learned about the complex relationship between the French and their cigarettes as an English assistant in a high school in the French countryside. The staff was split on the question of whether or not smoking should be banned in the teachers’ lounge, where profs had been enjoying cigarettes for as long as the school had existed.
As a young American living in France for the first time, I was adjusting to several cultural changes. Seeing teachers pass bottles of red wine between them during lunch break in the cafeteria (something students did themselves until alcohol in school cafeterias was banned about 60 years ago) was one example of such differences. The smoking in the teachers’ lounge debate was the next one to add to the list.
I understood the teachers’ addiction, but I couldn’t think of a legitimate defense for it. To me, smoking was a guilty pleasure, a problem that would inevitably be solved by finding the willpower to quit, but to the French smoking is a human right and taking that right away was an abuse of their personal freedoms.
The debate went on, as debates do in France, and by the time the school year was up the issue remained unresolved. Teachers continued to smoke while the non-smokers among them continued to inhale their second hand smoke.
I eventually became accustomed to life in France, embracing the cultural contrasts I encountered. It came as no surprise to me when, in 2008, the passing of a ban on smoking in public places created the expected amount of controversy. While an estimated 70% of French people supported the ban debate still raged about this drastic change to the French way of life.
By then I was working in a Pub in Paris, where I justified my increasing intake of nicotine as the only way to get a break during a ten hour shift. Despite my smoker status, I was excited about the legislation, happy that I would no longer be obliged to inhale the cigarette smoke of chain smokers who frequented the bar.
Citizens weighed in on the legislation, with reports taking over the nightly news presenting the pros and cons of the ban in France. A memorable counterpoint to the pro smoking ban argument came from an upset bar owner in the South of France, “What will people do with their hands if they can’t have a cigarette?” he asked the reporter from the local news outlet continuing, “we’re going to have to give people snacks to eat?”
Before the ban, it was hard to believe that France- the land of Serge Gainsbourg and his famous Gauloises cigarettes- would ever go smoke free, but now it feels normal. Even early objectors seem to have come around, perhaps having found something to do with their hands besides smoking (or, more likely, replacing a real cigarette with the electric variety- which seems to be sold on almost every street corner of any given French city).
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”.
Ma Terrasse Sans Tabac is just one step taken to advance the National Program to Reduce Tobacco Addiction. Recent efforts to promote the cause include the arrival on May 20th of “plain” cigarette packaging in France which rids cigarette packs of logos and designs in the hopes of making them less appealing to the consumer.
France has come a long way since the days of smoke filled bars and restaurants. We may even see the day when the country adopts California-style severity when it comes to smoking in public outdoor spaces. It is a noble attempt at reducing nicotine addiction in France, but somehow I think the benefits are most enjoyed by non-smokers and not those who stubbornly insist on keeping up their habit. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to know that somewhere in the French countryside a group of teachers is smoking outside, while their colleagues correct papers and catch up in a teachers’ lounge free from clouds of cigarette smoke.
- Want to know how to be a non-smoker among smokers? Learn about fauxking.
- Read about France’s new anti-smoking measures.
- Plus, no more glamorous cigarette names.