Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Smoking, Pas Chic?

(Also published at Blogcritics e-zine)
In a ludicrous claim two days ago, a New York Times headline announced, "Smoking No Longer Tres Chic in France." At the very least it should've been a question. Contrary to the article's headlining claim, one can feel very un-dude here sans cigarette.

Really, the article is quite strange on several grounds. First, the NY Times itself published an article one year ago that argued just the opposite: cigarettes in France are as chic as ever, and even more chic among the well-educated and wealthy by comparison to their American counterparts. The article is also strange in that its title as a claim is weakly supported by the reporting that follows. Just because a government committee has voted to ban smoking due to health concerns does not in any way prove that the greater French culture thinks smoking has been demoted from chic to uncouth on its scale of values. Non-sequitr.

It's practically a cliche to say it: smoking is a way of life in France. Even for the young, as an article in the International Herald Tribune noted about two weeks ago discussing the subject. This recent AP photo (at right) captures the Parisian everyday.
Yet it is true that smoking has been in the French public eye lately. A recent poll even finds 65% of those surveyed support banning smoking in cafes and bars. But if you know anything about interpreting public opinion polls, it's hard to say what that means. First, banning smoking may not at all be the on the minds of those being polled (until asked). Polls tend to suggest that those being polled had all but called up the pollers and said, "I say ban it! Quantify me!" Second, people are in principle for a lot of things. That doesn't mean they will stop smoking. There's reason and there's desire. Nor does it mean that those against smoking will make a big deal out of it if people violate the law in their presence.

I'll never forget attending a university colloquium fourteen years ago when I was studying in France for a year. A law had just been passed banning smoking in some public areas, such as university buildings. One of the speakers on a panel pulled out a cigarette and lit up directly beneath a big sign reading "Defense de Fumer."

It is true, however, that a public discourse in France has been growing about the health risks of smoking. In 2003 a major European study drew public attention to the end of a long myth France had enjoyed, what had been called a paradox that the French ate rich foods, drank lots of wine, smoked like chimneys, engaged in very little vigorous exercise and yet enjoyed a greater collective health than most countries in the world. No longer: the study found that French men had the highest cancer rate in all of Europe.

'France's poor position in terms of male cancer deaths can be explained largely by the high levels of deaths from lung cancer, throat and mouth cancers and liver cancer,' the report said.
'We know that this type of cancer is closely linked to two risk factors: excessive alcohol consumption and smoking.'

In the past, France has been evaluated quite highly by the World Health Organization and other studies, but this has partly been because French women's health has for a long time been better than men's, the latter of whose ranks of smokers increased in the post-war period, while French women did not. But more recently the women also have started smoking more. Some studies and commentators point to the French female determination to control weight. Cigarettes have long been seen, in France and elsewhere, as a way to suppress appetite and keep that metabolism on the treadmill. However, due to the surge in French women smoking in recent years, the WHO estimates that France's overall health rankings will fall now that women have earned the right to die from smoking, alas on a level of parity with their silk-cravatted counterparts.

In response to these and other findings, in the fall of 2003 the French government raised the price of cigarettes by 20%. The number of cigarette sales took a dip, but purchases of pouch tobacco and rolling papers increased. But more recently, the number of young smokers has increased. And now the strict health and tight budget advocates have found common ground. That's right: it must be said that part of the reason the health risk of smoking is on the media and public agenda is because the government has been searching for ways to finance its huge shortfalls in its health budget. Tradition versus deficits.

Far be it from me to play the pessimist, but neither price increases nor bans on cigarette advertising have produced permanent decreases in French smoking(that's right: public tobacco advertising was completely banned in France in 1993). Even if a new law and a new attitude about enforcing it drive the smokers outdoors, what reason is there to believe that 20% of the population will part with tradition? From my perspective they're pretty determined to keep the costs of their excellent health care high.

1 comment:

le Meg said...

If not with cigarettes, how else are the french girls going to train their mouths to perform that perfect pout?

I think skinny jeans will drop out of fashion long before cigarettes do - smoking ban or no smoking ban.