You can’t be a non-smoker and not be shocked, saddened and sickened by the popularity of cigarettes in France. In some French minds, smoking cigarettes is one of many indicators of Gallic superiority to Americans, with their puritanically oppressive anti-smoking attitudes and regulations.
Yesterday, I was going through children’s books in a library (looking for an easy read in French on Vercingetorix) where I saw a cartoon book about some French character in which he is smoking in nearly every frame. Passengers on smoke-free buses and trains stick butts in their mouths and get lighters and vapes out as they are disembarking to save precious seconds before they can start inhaling again. On a regular basis I witness some poor shriveled soul, with barely the strength, lifting up their hand to light the cigarette dangling from their lips.
But a new day might be on the horizon. The health authorities, if not the general medical staff population who take smoke breaks outside clinic doors so that they reek of cigarettes all day long, are on the case. November is “mois sans tabac,” or tobacco free month, a nationwide campaign for helping the French fight their addiction. It comes complete with a “get ready to quit” kit, insurance-covered cessation aids at the pharmacy, and a phone app that serves as a digital coach on going cigarette-free.
Apparently, since the annual campaign was launched a few years ago, one million French have done just that. Of course, other measures, like higher cigarette taxes, anti-smoking ad campaigns and new highly visual packaging showing grisly cancerous organs and “le tabac tue” (tobacco kills) in large print, have played a supportive role.
France, and EU member in general, have come a long way since the days when smoking was allowed everywhere — inside restaurants and bars, in doctors’ offices and airports, on any mode of transport, on any beach, park or classroom — basically wherever you liked. Several years ago, after a week of hacking and coughing my way through Paris, I couldn’t wait to get on the actual smoke-free aircraft taking me back to the US to get away from the toxic clouds of smoke in the airport. There’s a long way to go, but I can breathe more easily now.