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Tuesday, March 9, 2010


In 2008, a ban on smoking was enacted in France that extended to cafés, bars, restaurants, and more or less every public place that is enclosed. Some here talked as if it was the coming of the apocalypse. Many people, when imagining the café scene of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus, for example, cannot think of a café in Paris without placing the description of "smoke-filled" in front of it. How could the French hold on to the cherished tradition of going to the café to have a glass of wine or coffee, to read a book, or talk to a friend without being able to have a cigarette?

To be honest, France is doing just fine with the ban. If someone wants a cigarette, they either sit outside at a table, or they put on their jacket and step out the door for just enough time to light up. Occasionally it will stop the conversation, but more often than not, the conversation will continue after the smoke break. Personally, I do not smoke, but oftentimes if I am in a conversation, I will accompany the smoker outside. It seems that the biggest complain against the cafés in Paris are the prices, not the fact that smoking is no longer permitted inside.

Though ignoring the law can be penalized heavily, sometimes the rules can be ignored. In an earlier blog, I wrote of a day in Seine-et-Marne where one of Julie's father's friends asked the owner of the bar if he could light up. The owner had no problem with it and brought out an ashtray. We were the only customers, so it wasn't likely to bother anybody. The owner said that most of her clients smoke, and if she said no, then she would probably have no business.

In Paris, a lot of the cafés have big open windows, and tables and chairs can be placed inside these openings. Even if only a leg of the table is outside, then technically one can smoke in these seats, which I have noticed on one or two occasions to make the smoking ban somewhat pointless in these particular cafés.

Since living in France, I have noticed a difference regarding etiquette with smoking between France and the United States. Here's why:

1. When hosting a party in the United States, most people, when in need of a cigarette, will step outside in order to smoke. If in a small apartment, then usually people will lean out the window. What is important is that the smoke is not inside, thus not bothering those who are inside and choose not to smoke.

Here in France, many times when hosting a party, people will just light up a cigarette in the room, regardless of the presence of ventilation. We've had to remind Julie's mom several times not to smoke in our apartment, as she has lit up several times without the windows open in our place. At Julie's apartment when we first started dating, her roommates smoked in her room a couple of times a day. Julie never thought to tell them no, because she said everyone does it here and she didn't want to inconvenience them.

2. In the United States, a lot of my friends, particularly in St. Louis, tend to smoke regularly as well. Only a couple of them actually do it in the presence of their family. Even if they have been smoking for years, and even if their parents smoke, they don't want to disappoint their family by showing that they have chosen to be a smoker. It is viewed by parents as shameful and embarrassing. Announcing to your parents that you smoke is about as difficult as a 17 year old announcing to his parents that his girlfriend is pregnant.

Though I'm sure there are parents in France that are upset when they find their teenage son's pack of Marlboros in his jacket pocket, there seems to be a lot more tolerance regarding smoking from one's parents. When I lived with a family in 2008, I was amazed one night after dinner when the mom, son and daughter were all enjoying a cigarette at the dinner table. Her kids are both in their early 20's. I commented that I didn't realize that they smoked, and she said, "I could tell them to stop, but I'm not setting the best example myself." Another time, when Julie and I went to a friend's housewarming party, our friend had several cigarettes with her grandmother, and though our friend's father is a doctor and did not smoke the whole evening, he didn't seem to mind his daughter going through half a pack over the course of the evening.

According to data from the OECD in 2005, 27% of the population in France smoke at least one cigarette a day. If I was to give my personal estimate of what I see over here, it is hard for me to imagine that less than 50% of the population under 18 are daily smokers. Of the people I have met and know from France, I can literally count on my hands how many I know that do not smoke. Smoking is so prevalent here that I've had friends from the U.S. who actually started smoking over here, just because everyone else they spend time with seems to do it as well.

Sometimes I think smoking is just something that is done here just to keep the French from living forever. Everyone in this country seems to smoke, and still they have one of the highest life expectancies in the world (80.7 years, ranked 10th in the world). Without cigarettes, they might live to 150. Some sort of vice has to keep people in check. In the United States, it is the diet. In France, it is the cigarettes.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

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