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For French Teens, Smoking Still Has More Allure Than Stigma

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A sculpture of a cigarette butt inside Paris' Gare de Lyon railway station in 2012. France's Parliament sought to crack down on health hazards at the time. Another attempt is currently underway to curb smoking, which remains high among French teens.

One of the first things a visiting American may notice in France is the large number of people smoking. Especially young people. In a common after-school scene, teenagers sit at an outdoor café, smoking.

Some say they've been lighting up for about two years now and are up to a pack a day. Some of their parents know, but don't realize the extent of it.

"They know we smoke at parties; they think it's a social thing," says Louise Ferlet, age 16. "But if they knew that on our way to school we light a cigarette, they'd get mad. I mean, my dad caught me smoking in my room multiple times. He doesn't react because he went through the same thing and he knows I'm going to quit one day. And I know I'm going to quit. Just not today," she says with a laugh.

About 40 percent of French 17-year-olds smoke, according to French government figures. That's one of the highest rates in Europe. Less than 10 percent of American teens smoke, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a bid to reverse the high rate of smoking, particularly among the young, France has just introduced some of the world's toughest anti-tobacco measures, including plain cigarette packs and a ban on menthol cigarettes.

"We know that more and more of our young people are smoking," French Health Minister Marisol Touraine said recently in a French radio interview. "And they're particularly susceptible to marketing, which is inherent in the colors and shapes of these cigarette packs. And the flavors. This law will break that advertising and branding."

France will also ban flavors in electronic cigarettes. Europe's highest court, the European Court of Justice, just upheld the legality of such tough measures after the tobacco industry protested.

New packaging

Within six months, current cigarette packs will be phased out. The white, neutral packs will all look alike, with just the brand name in small letters next to large health warnings and pictures of diseased human organs.

But it wasn't hard to find a group of French students, hanging out after school, who were scoffing at such measures. They say that won't dissuade them at all. The only thing that could, they admit, is a steep price hike.

Touraine, the health minister, says her goal is to raise the price of cigarettes to more than 10 euros a pack, or about $12. Right now they're around $7, which is still one of the most expensive in Europe. Touraine says the tobacco lobby fights any price increase.

In France, cigarettes are sold exclusively in thousands of tiny tobacco shops, which are often attached to a neighborhood café. Emmanuelle Beguinot, executive director of the National Committee Against Tobacco, says one reason for high teen smoking rates in France is that tobacconists break the law and sell cigarettes to people under 18.

"We have done different surveys and we know that 40 percent sell to minors as young as 12 years old," says Beguinot.

Beguinot claims the tobacco shops are a front for giant tobacco multinationals. When the tobacconists oppose regulations, it gives the impression the little guy is standing up to big government.

Jean-Luc Renaud, head of the National Association of French Tobacconists, agrees that too many young people smoke, but he says it's not fair to blame tobacconists.

"In the past we weren't used to checking IDs," he says. "But now, by far the majority of tobacconists do. There are only a few who aren't rigorous."

Renaud says the new regulations won't stop young people from smoking, they'll only kill the tobacco shops.

"These ugly plain packs will just push people to buy cigarettes on the Internet, abroad or on the black market," he says.

A rite of passage

Smoking is often popular among girls, who see it as a rite of passage and a part of French culture, says Naomi Finel, 16.

"If you're young and you walk in the streets and you're in Paris, you will see people at cafes smoking and having a glass of wine," she says. "And it's like, 'Good. They seem happy. They seem to enjoy their life.'"

Beguinot, the anti-tobacco campaigner, says cigarettes are far too embedded in French culture.

"Too many French opinion leaders have a strong relationship with the tobacco industry," she says. "In the cinema, there are many product placements paid for by tobacco."

Beguinot says France has an arsenal of tough anti-smoking laws. But they're not enforced or backed up with public information campaigns. For too many young people, she says, smoking isn't toxic, it's glamorous.

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