24 September 2013

Les fumeurs

Last week a friend and I went to a contemporary art exhibit which was being presented to the public by the commissioned artist.  The art was creative, a little inexplicable, and verging on violent, while the artist herself was a beautiful and unusually tall French woman, probably of Algerian background.  She was wearing a patterned pantsuit that few would be able to carry off as successfully as she did, and she seemed fairly poised while speaking about each work, even though she admitted to being nervous at one point.  She certainly didn't miss a beat when my friend and I asked her a few questions in English after her presentation.

A few minutes after the presentation, as my friend and I seated ourselves along a garden wall to enjoy the complimentary wine and snacks offered by the Friends of the Museum, we caught a glimpse of the artist lighting up a cigarette.  Both of us had a similar and instantaneous reaction, as if surprised and then disappointed by the discovery of the artist smoking.  I am never quite sure why the smoking seems initially so shocking or disappointing, especially in this case, where it was a French artist, no less.  Also, I do have a few friends who smoke, and I certainly am not disappointed or shocked by them, nor is smoking something I'm interested in judging people for.  I don't care why people smoke; it's their choice.  (Okay, maybe I don't love it when young children are heavily exposed to cigarette smoke or when people litter their cigarette butts in public spaces.)  Maybe the surprised reactions are rooted in trying to understand the choice of les fumeurs (the smokers)?  I tried to think about this earlier, wondering if smoking might be related to the more relaxed demeanor the French present on the outside; maybe it's a calming device (see Je ne sais quoi, June 2012.)  Certainly in the U.S., the choice to smoke is presented as a bad one, so maybe the surprise comes from wondering why someone would then make a 'bad' choice.  But, smoking isn't all about sophistication and clever ways to suppress one's appetite in France either; the cigarette packets say unequivocally in big letters, Fumer tue (smoking kills) and e-cigarettes are quite popular right now in France among adults trying to quit conventional cigarette smoking (see "E-cigarettes as effective as patches to stop smoking" France24 News, 8 Sept. 2013).  Yet, the French still don't seem to bat an eye when someone in their midst, artist or not, suddenly pulls out a cigarette pack and lights up.  What it really must come down to then is simply a question of social norms.

Candy cigarettes
Those of us who still find ourselves surprised by les fumeurs in France are in fact reacting to our own normative expectations.  Smoking is simply not as normative in the U.S. as it is France (or even probably in England), and this is true as well when we look at the age, gender or educational levels of smokers in both societies. Here's what I know: both French men and women smoke more than their American counterparts--about 1/3 of French men smoked in 2007 to 21% of U.S. men in 2011, and 21% of French women to 16.5% of U.S. women  (see International Smoking Statistics France, web version 2011, by Forey et al., and "Adult smoking in the U.S. " CDC reports 2011)  Smoking also seems to begin earlier in France, even though in both countries, the heaviest smokers seem to be in the 20-44 years age groups.  (Is it glorified by candy cigarettes such as those bought by my kids and their friends one day last year?)  Smoking also has similar associations with educational level in both the U.S. and in France; it is negatively associated with educational level.  This means that the highest rates of smokers are found among the less educated, and vice versa.  One-third of French adults with less than a baccalauréat or bac (h.s. diploma equivalent) and about as many U.S. adults with less than a high school diploma smoke (30-34% for French with no diploma or less than bac, and 34.6% of U.S. equivalents).  But the differences in ratios begin to be especially pronounced when we look at the rates of smokers with high school diplomas and up.  Again, cigarette use declines as educational level increases in both countries, but the percentages begin to diverge, significantly, and this is probably the telling difference.  In France, 29.7% of bac holders smoke, compared to just 23.6% of U.S. high school diploma holders, while for college degree holders, 22% of  French bac +3/4 smoke and just 9% of U.S. undergraduate degree holders smoke.  Finally, in the most educated category, bac +5, 19% of these French smoke, but only 5% of American post-graduate degree holders do. (See CDC report above, and for French results, see Premiers résultats du baromètre santé 2010 Evolutions récentes du tabagism en France, Beck et al. 2010).  (I would have to do a similar survey of the data to see where England fits.)

Thus, my reaction to smoking in France is likely a result of spending my early adulthood years in the U.S. where my social circle, as it is associated with my income level, residential location, educational level, and occupational status, etc., was overwhelmingly non-smoking.  Perhaps 1 or 2 in 20 of my friends, acquaintances and family members might be smokers (if I apply the CDC estimates of 5-9%, for the rate of undergrad degree and post-grad degree holders who smoke), but I am hard-pressed to count that many. (There will be regional variation in the U.S., as the CDC report shows that Washington state is a relatively low smoking state, and it's a very good guess that health-conscious Seattle's rate is also quite low).  In contrast, had I been in France from ages 25 to my mid-40s, and holding the social factors above constant, that is, not changing any features of my social status, 1 in 5 of the people in my social circle would have been smokers (using the estimated 19% of bac +5 that smoke to the 22% of bac +3/4).  Smoking is simply much more normative here, even by educational level, and it is much less so in the U.S.  Normative expectations are informed by our experiences with social norms over time.  I've been in France a relatively short time, and so my expectations about smoking and when and where I will encounter smokers are still heavily influenced by my experiences elsewhere.  In that respect, my surprise each time is not at all that surprising.

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