The Parisian way: Smoking and Espressos

Survey shows that French people have given up resisting smoking.

By Eliza Freeman

Smoking is embedded in the lifestyle and culture of Paris. It is more than just an addictive guilty pleasure, it’s a time to chat, unwind in cafés or bars and relax. Despite the steady decline of smoking in France since the early 2000s, recent studies suggest the trend of smoking is on the rise again. 

Just three years ago numerous articles were being published with titles such as ‘Has Paris ended its love-affair with cigarettes?’or ‘Vaping, the Cigarette,’ and in early 2019 vaping was gaining popularity in Paris. However, statistics from Barometer of public health France show many Parisians are picking up their old-fashioned cigarette habits, with 37 percent of people in France smoking – that’s an increase of 24 percent in 2019 and almost double the number of smokers as the Netherlands. 

High smoking rates persist among Parisians: in front of almost every diner and café in Paris, you will see someone smoking. A tobacco store owner, on Rue des Abbesses in Montmartre, says cigarettes are more than just the hit of nicotine. He said, “Smoking has been a part of the French lifestyle since the 1600s.”

Recent data from the Barometer of Public Health France confirms smoking is still a big problem in France. Their latest estimates were published in 2022, showing an increase in the prevalence of daily smoking among women and low socio-economic groups between 2019 and 2021. According to Smoke Free World, among those who smoke, French men consume 13.5 cigarettes a day and women, 11.5. 

Studies suggest the increase could be a delayed outcome of the Covid epidemic. Three years later, the 2020 lockdown could still be impacting people’s coping habits and routines. Loïc Josseran of the Alliance Against Tobacco says that when the country’s population experienced difficult times, addictive behaviours such as the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes increased. Rather than alternative options like vaping, French people tended to return to cigarettes, craving familiarity during uncertain times. One-quarter of adults aged 18-75 reported smoking daily during the lockdowns due to the epidemic. According to PMC PubMed Central, boredom, lack of social life or pleasure, and high anxiety levels experienced during the lockdowns, all contributed to the increase in smoking.

A woman sitting in a velvet red gown in a Parisian ballroom, delicately holding a cigarette between her two fingers: that’s the visual one used to find in a vogue magazine. Now, it’s not advertised so directly but such ads can still be found on social media. Exposure to influencers’ posts on Instagram or TikTok, and smoking, is another possible reason for the gradual increase in tobacco use. Parisians are well known for their high-end fashion, good skincare and slim bodies. They are perceived as upholding a chic reputation and to fit this standard, one should smoke cigarettes. Smoking in a heated outdoor seating area while sipping a coffee or Cognac is a must for French locals. A local Parisian, Lena, aged 21 says, “It’s totally normal that everyone sits outside, even if its freezing outside. Which means I smoke much more.” It appears smoking is at the peak of its trend again.

Locals from Paris show how firmly embedded smoking is in France culture.  Audrey, a resident of Paris for nine years, said she only began smoking in her first year in the new city. At first, she smoked six to eight cigarettes a day but for health, reasons have recently cut down, only smoking socially about two times a week. She said, “French people just love to smoke, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with it too.” Lena was introduced to smoking in her early teens. She says, “I was 14 when I bought my first package, whenever we could sneak out when our parents weren’t there we would, to smoke.” More recently, Lena tried vaping for four months but stopped mostly due to culture and trends, because her friends preferred to smoke cigarettes. However, she also worries about the long-term effects of it. “I am a bit sceptical of vaping (…) and right now, I don’t have the time or energy to rethink my habits.” 

Vaping teens 

Vaping initially became a popular alternative to smoking in 2019, prompting young people in their 20s to quit smoking, which had not typically been seen before. France and the United Kingdom are the two biggest markets in Europe for vaping, with 5.7 percent of adults in France vaping. Studies suggest smokers who quit cigarettes and transferred to vaping believed there were worthwhile benefits: avoiding illness and disease and putting a stop to smoking habits being passed through generations. However, recent studies have shown that vaping also has serious health risks and suggest it is too early to know what those health risks might be. The harmful chemicals and nicotine from vapes can cause health risks associated with cigarettes, including lung damage and it can cause more immediate issues like dry or sore throat, coughing and irritation.

 The owner of the tobacco store in Montmartre said he still sells 80 to 90 percent cigarettes compared to vapes and questions whether the switch to vaping actually promotes tobacco use and may have contributed to the gradual increase in cigarette smokers. “People come in, especially young people, they want to try vaping, and then next time want to try cigarettes.” He suggests vapes could be a gateway to cigarettes. 

Despite cigarette prices continuing to increase every year, French people continue to buy them. And despite the disease and known health risks of tobacco consumption, the popularity of smoking remains and even grows. While measures in France are taken to minimise smoking, each year in France, tobacco still kills around 75,000 people. So next time you visit Paris, expect to see a Parisian with an espresso in one hand and smoke in the other.