Apr 17th, 2017, 05:00 PM

Smoking Culture

By Isabel Guigui
Image Credit: Pixabay/Kruscha
Why the obstinence of the French to continue smoking is killing me

I think it’s fair to say that we came up in the world in a time where smoking was becoming less and less fashionable. For how long have we known the iconic “smoking kills” text?

And yet here we are in France, a country whose citizens still smoke like chimneys, seemingly oblivious of the changing times (not to mention the damaging consequences of their consumption). While The Tobacco Atlas shows the republic to have the highest consumption rate among young adolescents in Western Europe, the anti-smoking movement is also gaining traction. Notably, about a year ago the government published Decree 2016-334, a law that would ban any display of brand labeling or logos on cigarette cartons. Australia took this measure in 2011 and has since seen a meaningful decline in its smoking population; like France, Ireland and the U.K. also put forth this initiative last March, to be put into effect by the end of 2016. Around that time, my friend Amina and I were sitting on the terrasse of the brasserie where we work, she enjoying a cigarette, I her company. "En 2017 j'arrête la clope" she asserted, examining the Camel between her fingers. Of the many friends I have made at this restaurant, coworkers as well as clients, few don't smoke. I can think of perhaps two or three people whom I have never seen smoke, and I see these people all the time (especially having worked there fulltime before beginning to study). 

"In 2017 I will stop smoking," 

Amina, preferring to inhale more natural products, does not smoke cigarettes as religiously as many of our friends. On a good day she'll have perhaps three. So why not smoke at all? I ask. Well, she explains, I like it "pour la geste"--for the gesture, the look of having it in her hand, of the esthetic it provides her as she speaks, drags, inhales, draws from her glass of red, muses some more, exhales. When I pester her by pointing out these are all very nice, but the thing kills you, she simply says, "In 2017 I'll stop the cigarette." 

It's 2017. Amina is still smoking. And my other friend Mathieu has started to smoke again.

I came to France at the end of the summer in 2015. Thanks to my cousin I got a job bartending in this restaurant of his friend's, which at the time was just opening. I was new to Paris and new to the job. Wide-eyed and in admiration of all things à la mode française, I considered the cigarette quandary. Would I take up this habit, and  press myself to emulate the ways of the French on this level too; I had done so with the linguistic expressions, the street language, and the attitudes of Parisian interactions. I wanted so eagerly to get right, so why not consider smoking?

Wide-eyed and admiring of all things à la mode française, I considered the cigarette quandary. 

I considered it. I won't lie, I do love the look of the cigarette. It's sleek, you tuck away a carton in your handbag, kitchen drawer, coat pocket... or breast pocket if you have your own glinting case. I love to see a man inhale and close his eyes, lean his head back into the sun; the way a woman holds it delicately, unconscious of her elegance; the sight of a lighter flaring in the evening, how the smoke dissipates into the rain. I love to observe how different people tap (or neglect) the ash; some almost nervously every few seconds or after each drag, some seemingly carelessly letting the cinder grow until it measures longer than seems likely. I love even to see how each prepares to light up: some people will tuck a cig behind their ears, then forget it's there and light another, some will hang one loosely between the lips, then go on talking for another few minutes as the clope dangles impossibly and moves with their mouths. I like the look of it all, so I did consider smoking. But I could never bring myself to want to smoke. I wanted to want it, but knew that I actually wasn't missing out. So for the first few weeks if someone offered me a cigarette I would often said yes, imagining myself becoming more and more French. Of course I knew as well that was a stupid notion. Unsurprisingly I did not stick with it, simply because the taste polluted my mouth and made me feel like I was consuming the color gray. When I started at my restaurant my co-worker Mathieu and I were the only non-smokers. He explained with endearing smugness that he used to smoke, but had quit 'for his health" he said, clearly underlining the sexual benefits with a wink. That was in 2015. 

Now it is 2017, and Amina is still smoking. "En 2018 j'arrête la clope," she declared in her unaffected manner a month or two ago. Mathieu started smoking again about two months ago as well. I asked him why, especially after telling me about the health benefits that he would pick up smoking again; he shrugs and smirks, "On va mourir de toutes façons". 


Image credit: Isabel Guigui

I don't blame my friends. I don't judge them for their choice. Who am I to do so? We all make self-deprecating decisions and I certainly have my vices. Quite simply, this is their culture, these are the norms. They grew up surrounded by adults who smoked in their presence, they looked up to older kids who would form a crowd outside school and puff up a storm together. But it still pains me. 

The cigarette is the perfect excuse. We see this every week. The winter season has been calmer, but as soon as the bar fills up at night or some arrogant client has pushed one of my colleagues too far I hear, "Ça y est, faut que je sorte un moment" or conversely, "Va fumer une clope là, t'es trop venere" and off he or she goes with a pack and a lighter. Meanwhile if I become stressed by the pace of orders, or the neighborhood buffoons who arrive and start dishing out their misogynist rhetoric (read: bullshit), I have the full right to take a glass of juice and sit outside for a few minutes, granted by my superiors who think it's cute. But I don't feel like going outside with my strawberry juice is valid; no one would ever say it or even think it, but I feel like I need to have a cigarette in my hand to justify taking a break. 

"Go smoke a cigarette, you're too irritated." 

Sometimes I reconsider, and think perhaps I could start smoking, if only a little. But whenever I get tipsy enough to accept a cigarette I sober right up again and remember how much I hate the taste. And even if I could overcome that, the thought that every cigarette is detrimental to my health, as vanilla as that may sound, convinces me to deter. I want to live a long life, work hard. I want to be able to travel many years with my overloaded backpack, whiz around the city on a Vélib or my longboard, run, jump and laugh like a fool. And I want the same for my friends, who are crazier than I, whom I love so much, and whose years are shortened with every drag. 

It is now 2017. Perhaps the law that has come into effect in the last few months will have an impact for the better on the habits of these people I hold so dear. Amina, disgusted by the gross images covering her pack of Camels, now carries them in a kids' Band-aid tin--it has colorful monkeys on it. Maybe in 2018 she won't even need that anymore.