Paris Tried to Crack Down on Its Worst Attribute

Smoking 7Parisians–and the French in general–are smokers.

It’s a love affair that’s lasted for decades, and shows no sign of abating any time soon. Studies show that about 30% of French adults smoke, and more alarmingly a similarly high percentage of Gallic teenagers regularly light up. Health officials estimate that the rate is even higher in Paris–one-third of all Parisians are believed to be smokers.

Smokers are virtually everywhere you turn in Paris–shop employees standing outside their boutiques puffing away, cigarettes dangling from the mouths of pedestrians strolling through the streets, entire cafe terraces filled with table after table of smokers creating a cloud trapped under the patio’s canopy.

It’s unavoidable. And it’s one of the truly disappointing aspects of the City of Light.

Smoking 1In addition to forcing non-smokers into constantly inhaling second-hand smoke, smokers have turned Parisian streets into literal outdoor ashtrays. All those cigarette butts must go somewhere, and more often than not its right into the gutter. The next time you’re in Paris, peer down at the street, any street. And then try to count the number of cigarette butts you’ll see in a one-block span. Or, worse yet, wake up early and watch city employees clean the streets each morning. You’ll see piles and piles of butts that are swept up. Even more alarming is when the workers flood the gutters with water pumped from the Seine to flush countless thousands of cigarette butts into the city’s sewers.

Smoking 2Some say the problem of cigarette litter exploded when a new French law in 2007 cracked down on indoor smoking, including implementing bans for cafes, restaurants, shops and other businesses. By forcing smokers outside, they claim the law resulted in heaps of cigarettes being stamped out on the pavement or tossed into gutters instead of politely disposed of indoors. (This assumption ignores the fact that cafe and restaurant terraces still permit smoking, and every outdoor table is adorned with an ashtray. And yet, steps away cigarette butts fill the sidewalk and gutter.)

Whatever the cause, the problem of cigarette butts littering Paris’s streets grew so large than then-mayor Bertrand Delanoe in 2012 launched a program to urge Parisians to stop using the city’s streets as their ashtrays, hiking fines for tossing cigarette butts into the gutter and installing 10,000 public ashtrays throughout Paris. He even approved an expensive multimedia campaign for the effort. The effect was, sadly, minimal.

Anne Hidalgo

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo

Current Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo hoped to shift the battle from how cigarettes are disposed of back to where they’re allowed to be smoked. She announced in 2014 an “experiment” aimed at reducing the amount of outdoor second-hand smoke the city’s residents, particularly children, are exposed to. Smoking was banned in all public parks in Paris’s mostly-residential 14th Arrondissement. In particular, Higaldo wanted to gauge whether children playing at park playgrounds experience fewer smoke-related health issues through smoke-free environments.

The plan, not surprisingly, didn’t create the positive effects Hidalgo had hoped for. Indeed, quite the opposite occurred.

As expected, many Parisians were up in arms, screaming about their rights to smoke where they wanted and when they wanted, particularly when outside. And this is a valid issue to address–the rights of smokers to engage in their legal habit vs. the rights of non-smokers to breathe smoke-free air. (I tend to side with the non-smokers, but am willing to listen to the concerns of those who think their freedoms are being quashed in an effort to reach some sort of compromise.)

Smoking 6But what I found truly alarming–disgusting even–is that far too many short-sighted bloggers and travel writers whined that Higaldo’s program could result in the “loss” of iconic Parisian imagery–that of cigarette smokers puffing away throughout the city. They alleged that somehow the chain-smoking Parisian is something to not only be accepted, but to be celebrated, photographed, lionized.

I’m sorry, but that was utterly insane.

It’s akin to suggesting that America’s obesity epidemic is simply part of the USA’s charm–that overweight, sweating, waddling Americans are cute and make great travel photos for foreign tourists. “Look, a fat American! Quick take a picture!” “Look, a French smoker! How lovely!”

Smoking 4Parisians, if you want to smoke, that’s fine. Have at it. To each his own. But no one–not smokers, not travel writers, not tourists, no one–should ever claim it’s part of your city’s appeal. It most certainly is not. It never has been.