(asked  by Ismael from California)


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?


Ah smoking

The French love to argue, but at the end of the day they always reconcile all sitting at the same table, eating, drinking and… smoking? Maybe not. Actually, the debate “smokers” vs “non-smokers” is one of the most intense that has been going on in France, both sides being totally irreconcilable! Friendships have ended because of a cigarette! Marriages too… Well, in that case, we can suspect that the cigarette was used as a proof of cheating somehow.

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 (Wow, it’s been a few years now, maybe I should return someday, well, that is if Homeland Security hasn’t blacklisted me after all the US bashing I’ve been doing)… Where was I? Oh, yeah, last time I was in the US, on the East Coast, while there were less smokers than in France, smoking habits were not as different from the ones in France (that is very different from the ones in California from what I’ve heard), with the major exception that smokers respect non-smokers.

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

Why is that?

Well, first numbers. Because you’ll see that French people don’t smoke as much as you may think (remember, the “loud minority” effect, you will notice the few smokers more than the many non-smokers).

Approximate percentage 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).


So yeah, why do a lot of French people still smoke?

Thing is that I’m not totally sure, except because “old habits die hard”. Cigarettes are getting bad propaganda in France, since 2008, it is 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, French people still smoke.

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 they’re adults, they’d like to quit, but it’s too late they’re addicted.

But 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 is any smoker in my social circle - see, not so many people smoke in France - I’m not keeping track of the prices.

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 you’re told plays a big part.

Also, France is not as health obsessed as Americans (and especially Californians) can be, and “you gotta die of something.” And as French people are less likely to die from being gunned down, eating crappy food or lack of proper health-care than 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.

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

But if there are any French smokers out here, please feel free to give us your two cents in the comments.



pixel Why do a lot of French people still smoke?

4 Responses to “Why do a lot of French people still smoke?”

  1. All of my French friends smoke! It’s actually kind of a social problem - when we are out to dinner or to get drinks everyone gets up simultaneously to smoke and I am left to guard the table. I guess it’s very common with young people? More than adults.

    • Yes, younger people definitely smoke more.
      It was a big problem when I was younger as I was the only one (with another friend) who didn’t smoke among my friends, especially in the winter, when we would be indoors and everyone would light a cigarette.
      Nowadays, they’re old dead from cancer, so only the non-smoking ones remain.
      Seriously, while I lost touch with most of them, the few others seem to have managed to quit.

  2. I don’t know about France, but in Romania, almost everybody smokes. Starting from 12 year olds. What’s the legal age of buying cigarettes in France? How about highschool rules? Can one smoke in the breaks?
    Cherrie recently posted..Prejudices and how they manage to destroy you a little bitMy ComLuv Profile

    • Last time I checked, I think the legal age was 18. But it’s not exactly enforced.

      Back when I was in high school, if I remember correctly (that was so long ago), kids were allowed to smoke as long as it was outdoors, I think.
      However, I remember that in college, students used to smoke even indoors (not in classrooms, but in corridors and such).

      Nowadays, since the 2008 “smoking ban” law, I assume that it’s not the case anymore. Not sure.

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