Paris, known as the “City of Lights” is also the city that lights up. The number of smokers – especially teen smokers – in Paris isn’t something I was aware of until my family vacationed there last summer. Before our trip, I knew I would encounter linguistic and cultural differences, but the difference I most expected was that the Parisians would be naturally chic, sophisticated and beautiful. And they were that for sure, but less so than I had hoped. I have a cultural bias that links chic, sophistication and beauty with good health practices.
In the small liberal Sonoma County town I’m from, it is rare to see someone smoke on the streets. I remember once when I was 5 or 6, my mother reprimanded me for rudely pinching my nose as I walked past an older man standing on the sidewalk smoking. I was definitely brought up to believe that smoking was bad, so bad that even having an occasional cigarette wasn’t worth the risk of becoming addicted to nicotine.
On the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) website, the first sentence under Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking is, “Harms nearly every organ of the body.” Until going to Paris, I couldn’t imagine that the widely publicized bad health effects of smoking hadn’t scared away most educated people. So why is something so incredibly harmful to your health and well being such a common, “popular” thing to do in Paris?
What was even harder for me to understand was that teenagers in France are allowed to smoke. In the U. S. it is illegal for teenagers to buy cigarettes. One night in Paris my parents and I ate dinner at an upscale Parisian Bistro with an outside patio. At the very front of the bistro was a group of teenagers, all smoking and drinking. Their table was engulfed in a cloud of smoke. I watched as they routinely switched between gulping wine and puffing a cigarette. I felt like I was watching a group of kids sitting around a table inflicting self harm.
Back at my hotel, I did research on smoking laws in France. Unlike America, where the smoking age is 18, there is no particular age for when you can start smoking; the age for purchasing cigarettes in France was recently raised from 16 to 18 while in the United States it varies between 18 to 21.
A smoking ban put in place in 2007 forbids smoking in France in such indoor places as schools, government buildings, airports, offices and factories. In 2008, a new ban was passed that forbids smoking in restaurants, cafés, bars and casinos. In France, the tax on cigarette packs has also risen significantly, and the packs are all required to have warnings and frightening images In America, there has been a steady decline of smokers and only one out of every five Americans smoke, a number that is an all-time low. However in France, one out of every three people smoke and despite the government’s best efforts, according to an article published by the Radio France Internationale in February 2012, the number of people from 18 to 75 years old who are regular smokers has risen two points since 2005, from 28% to 30% The worst part is that 38% of French teens (aged 15 or 16) said they had smoked at least one cigarette in the past month, up from 30% of teenagers in 2007. There is an average of 200 deaths per day, or 73,000 deaths per year, due to tobacco in France.
Though I was a bit worried I might offend her, I decided to Skype my French pen-pal, Anouk, who lives in Chateau Thierry, a small town 45 minutes outside Paris, to ask her what she thought of teen smoking in Paris, France. Anouk just graduated from high school and is planning to attend the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Although both of her siblings smoke, she hasn’t and has done her best to steer her friends away from cigarettes.
I asked her why teenagers in France smoke when it is a known cause of cancer, heart disease, and other health problems.
Her answer was simple, “They started because others did, they follow the crowd.”
This statements echoes what other French teenagers have said. In an article published by the International Business Times in June 2013, a young French woman named Amandine Joué, who started smoking at age 13, conceded that she smoked for the first time because she just to wanted be like everybody else.
Anouk said that one of her friends also uses cigarettes as a prop when posting pictures to Instagram, wanting to emulate the cool, “adult” Frenchwoman. She said that the average age for teens to start smoking is between 14 to 15, although she pointed out that almost anyone can buy a cigarette. because storekeepers will let anyone purchase cigarettes as long as the storekeeper makes a profit. And although raising the price of cigarettes may have deterred some people from purchasing them, it definitely isn’t encouraging storekeepers to be selective about their customers when they can make a large profit from the sales.
For me, the obvious agent to stop self harm when you are underage is your parents. Why aren’t parents stopping their children from smoking? Anouk’s explanation was that she had a friend who had smoked for four years before her parents found out. She would just open the window and lean out. Her parents weren’t upset when they discovered, because they smoked as well. I can only guess that one of the reasons why Anouk’s friend had been able to get away with it for so long was because the smell of cigarettes was easy to disguise in a house with two smokers.
How has Anouk, who is surrounded by so many friends and family who are all partaking in the culture, managed to stay away from cigarettes? From what I can tell, her success is a mixture of two things. First, plain common sense is stopping her from “following the crowd.” Second, she has been lucky enough to have parents who warned her that nothing good could come of smoking.
My last question for Anouk was: what would she choose to do that Americans do that seems crazy? Answer: going to enormous parties. She giggled that everyone in Paris would love to have a prom, and that she wasn’t sure if it was just from the movies, but the parties in America just seem so big.
Yes, the French may be partaking in a practice that endangers their health, but do we really have the right to judge? American teens also indulge in extremely unhealthy behaviors. Think about this: a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of San Francisco, California showed that more people in America die from skin cancer caused by tanning beds than from smoking. In France, one out of every three people has smoked before and only 14% of people in France have used a tanning bed. In America, one out of every three Americans has used an indoor tanning bed and only 18.1% are smoking.
The research I’ve done – getting firsthand information from Anouk, reading article after article on why the French might smoke, reading statistics and making educated guesses – points to the fact that people smoke in France as a simple matter of image. Teens are smoking because they want to follow the crowd, seem cool, be an adult, all things that are about appearance. Teens want to rebel, to do something that seems exciting, and that’s also about image. How would you feel if everyone you knew had a certain image, and all you wanted to do was fit in? Wouldn’t copying their image be the best way to do that?
The French media glamorizes smoking. The picture that comes to mind of beautiful screen sirens lounging on sofas with wisps of smoke escaping their perfectly gaped two front teeth is most definitely an image that has been portrayed so many times in films that it is etched in my mind.
France has their image, but so does America. Aren’t we tanning because we want to be a different color? Maybe because we want to fit in with the crowd? Because it is cool to be richly tanned and not as pale as Snow White? It seems to me that we have a human desire to look a certain way and feel the need to fit in. The need to be someone or look like something else can override all rational thought. Because, would we really be human if we were all okay with being different? And maybe the best way to spread awareness, to stop the cycle of following the crowd, even to the point of death, is to be okay with being different.