RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
To be cool and sexy in France has long involved smoking - Brigitte Bardot putting a cigarette to her lips, smoke curling around Jean-Paul Belmondo. Ministers from 10 countries are now in Paris to talk about how to cut down on smoking around the world. France itself has new very tough anti-smoking laws, as well as lots of young people lighting up. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This is a common after-school scene in Paris - a group of teenagers sitting at an outdoor cafe, smoking. These 16-year-olds say they've been lighting up for two years now. They smoke a pack a day. Some of their parents know, but they don't realize the extent of it, says Louise Ferlet.
LOUISE FERLET: They know we smoke at parties. They think it's a social thing. But if they knew that when - on our way to school we light a cigarette and everything, they'd get mad. But they don't - I mean, my dad caught me smoking in my room multiple times. And he doesn't react because he knows it's - he went through the same thing. And he knows I'm going to quit one day. And I know I'm going to quit one day, just not today (laughter).
BEARDSLEY: About 40 percent of French 17-year-olds smoke. That's one of the highest rates in Europe. And compare it to the less than 10 percent of American teens who smoke. That, says French health minister Marisol Touraine, is why the new laws are being introduced.
MARISOL TOURAINE: (Through interpreter) We know that more and more of our young people are smoking. And they're particularly susceptible to marketing, which is inherent in the colors and shapes of cigarette packs. This law will break that advertising and branding.
BEARDSLEY: The white, neutral cigarette packs now all look alike, with just the brand name in small letters next to large health warnings and pictures of diseased human organs. But this after-school crowd scoffs at such measures.
What would make you stop? Do you think the plain packets, will this help?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, not at all.
BEARDSLEY: Cigarettes in France are sold only in thousands of tiny tobacco shops which are often attached to a neighborhood cafe. 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.
EMMANUELLE BEGUINOT: We made different surveys, and we know that 40 percent sell to minors who are 12 years old.
BEARDSLEY: Beguinot claims that 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 the new regulations won't stop that.
JEAN-LUC RENAUD: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "It won't stop kids from smoking. It'll just hit our business," he says. "People will try to buy regular cigarette packs from the internet or on the black market." More than anything, these girls call smoking a rite of passage and a part of French culture, says Naomi Finel.
NAOMI FINEL: If you're young and you're walking the streets and you're in Paris, you will see people at cafes smoking, having a glass of wine. And it's just - it's like, good. They seem happy. They seem to enjoy their life.
BEARDSLEY: Anti-tobacco campaigner Beguinot says too many French opinion leaders, especially cultural icons, have a strong relationship with the tobacco industry.
BEGUINOT: For example, for the cinema, there are many product placements paid by tobacco industry.
BEARDSLEY: 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. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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