France: An Ambivalent War Against Smoking

Even the French now worry about cigarettes, but attempts to curb smoking face some peculiarly Gallic obstacles

France, renowned among Americans as a bastion of Cartesian logic, is currently questioning itself over its curious, even paradoxical, posture regarding smoking. The United States has turned sharply against smoking, and readily accepts no-smoking zones in restaurants, offices, and public places. But in France things are different, because the French government owns the nation's cigarette-manufacturing monopoly. It reaps substantial tax revenues from cigarettes, and clings to its role as tobacco merchant. At the same time, the government pays the heavy health and social costs that derive from smoking. Each sale of a pack of Gauloises brings the state five francs in taxes and is estimated to cost the state around nine francs.

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The contradiction became subject to increasingly intent scrutiny after publication of a proposed law to limit tobacco use, presented by twenty-seven members of the National Assembly, which said, "The state is pursuing a shortsighted policy, and cannot reconcile the tax revenue from tobacco with the health and social cost."

France's cigarette manufacturer and distributor, called SEITA (for Societe d'Exploitation Industrielle des Tabacs et Allumettes), has the sole right to manufacture cigarettes within the country, and controls the distribution of almost all imported cigarettes. It belongs wholly to the government. SEITA generated 31 billion francs ($5.48 billion) in 1990 tax revenues--some 2.3 percent of the national budget--plus an operating profit of $66.7 million.

The annual cost to the country for health care related to smoking is estimated at $8.8 billion, plus some $2.6 billion in lost production, for a total social cost per year of $11.4 billion.

Each year some 61,000 French men and women--almost the equivalent of the entire population of Cannes--die of ailments related to smoking. An authority on smoking in France, Professor Jean Marsac, the head of the pneumology department at Paris's Cochin Hospital, calls cigarettes "the most deadly addiction epidemic of the twentieth century." Cigarette consumption doubled in France in the thirty-five years from 1950 to 1985, and although it has stopped increasing and has even declined slightly in recent years, heavy smokers are much more numerous today than they have been in the past: 23.5 percent of male smokers consumed more than a pack a day last year, as compared with 16 percent in 1977. Overall, 38 percent of people in France smoke, as compared with 29 percent in the United States, and smoke lies heavy almost everywhere in the land.

The nation's young people are hardest hit by the effects of smoking. They are the most suggestible, the most vulnerable to the seeming glamour of a once-forbidden adult habit. The earlier a person starts smoking, some specialists say, the more damaging the habit will be--and 10 percent of the smokers in France are under twelve. Sixty percent of all eighteen-year-olds are smokers.

Those French who smoke do so with avidity, and even light up between courses at meals, a practice once universally condemned. Watching students outside lycees or universities in France as they try to master the rituals of veteran smokers is amusing, although also depressing. Here one sees a latter-day Humphrey Bogart taking a deep pull on a Camel and throwing his head back dramatically to blow out the smoke; there a would-be John Wayne takes a hard-bitten draw on his Lucky Strike, eyes half-closed with menace. The moment they emerge from class, students light up their Gitanes, Philip Morrises, and Gauloises, and they carry their cigarettes before them woodenly as though they were fetishes.

Valerie Nicoly, twenty-eight, an assistant television director who studied at the demanding Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, explains the lure of smoking: "It has to do with the American image from World War Two, with the U.S. soldiers in Europe and their parachuted supplies of cigarettes, with the Far West, heroes, cowboys, films, adventure. All this makes smoking seem glamorous." She adds that Andre Malraux and other French intellectuals were usually seen as smokers, and many students aspire to become intellectuals. Students also spend a lot of time in cafes, she notes, establishments traditionally hazy with a mantle of blue-gray Gauloise smoke; this reinforces the habit.

A more clinical view is taken by Guilhem Boutan, twenty-five, a graduate of the school of management at the University of Paris, Dauphine campus. "Stress leads people to smoke," he says, drawing deeply on a Marlboro, "and students are under a lot of stress. There is a lot of competition, a lot of pressure, in the French educational system." Boutan's view is confirmed by the weekly Nouvel Observateur, which conducted a study of smoking and concluded that "the major factor responsible for smoking seems to be 'le stress.'"

Of course, those who find relief from stress through cigarettes are feeling the effect of nicotine. Nicotine makes its way through the system quickly, reaching the brain in about seven seconds, and has what many smokers describe as a soothing effect. Nicotine, however, is also used as an insecticide, and a dose of as little as fifty milligrams will kill a human being within a few minutes.

Curiously enough, in view of its present reputation, tobacco was thought to be a panacea by those who introduced it in Europe. It came from the Americas, a precursor of other American imports, benign and malign, from democracy to jazz, fast food, the samba, and graffiti. Around 1560 Jean Nicot, France's ambassador to Portugal, sent some tobacco to Catherine de Medicis, the queen mother and regent of France, in hopes that the plant might help relieve her migraine headaches, and he won the debatable honor of having the psychoactive substance in tobacco named after him. Moliere extolled the wonders of tobacco fulsomely in Don Juan, saying, "There is nothing like tobacco.... Not only does it rejuvenate and purge the human brain, but it instructs souls with virtue...." James I of Scotland, more prescient, condemned it as "repugnant to the eye, detestable to the nose, dangerous for the brain, appalling for the lungs." In Russia, Czar Alexis Romanov ordered that smokers' noses be cut off.

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