Two summers ago, I spent a month in France where I developed the intense desire to start smoking cigarettes. I didn’t. As a health-conscious American the idea had never before occurred to me. Here smoking is a bad habit, a disgusting smell, and a deal breaker for almost any first date ever. It’s something people do on the street corner not wearing a Dior suit at a trendy café.

But in France smoking is just the opposite—it’s an act of leisure, it’s a symbol of class, it’s a way to keep a long lingering dinner going late into the night. In France, smoking is something else entirely. It’s beautiful and elegant. It’s a way to savor small moments of the day. It’s visibly appealing and somehow entices you to kiss those smokey lips. And yes, it’s done wearing designer everything.

Smokers are less healthy than non-smokers because smoking causes cancer

The French don’t care about all of the studies done on smoking, rather they rely on anecdotes of their own. During our last visit, the boat captain of our catamaran tour told us, “We are obligated to tell you that there is no smoking on this boat, but we are French so we will smoke anyway.” Cheers arose. Later on in the afternoon, he told us about his mother. She smoked a pack of cigarettes every day and had two shots of whiskey for lunch every afternoon. She was in her mid-nineties and she was the healthiest person he knew.

Most of the people we met had a similar story. Believe all the studies you want, the French seem to say, some of the healthiest people we know are smokers. But there are studies. And we can’t ignore them. Here’s a list of all of them and the results are really, really bad. Smoking is dangerous, and people who smoke live an entire decade less than people who don’t. So what is it with the French?

First, it’s worth noting that French people die of lung cancer at about the same rates as American people. In other words, the so-called French Paradox that claims French people are somehow able to smoke without any health repercussions is absolutely false. And yet, smoking has a certain je ne sais quoi. When I’m in France, I can’t shake the desire to join the fumeur elite and smoke cigarettes for hours on end.

Yet smokers are more healthy than non-smokers because they are skinnier

That’s what they do, you know. Every second of the day, the French can be found with something on their lips. Coffee in the morning, a baguette with some butter, then a few cigarettes to hold them over until lunch. Lunch features a couple of courses, a glass of red wine, and yes, a cigarette or two to lengthen the lunch hour and linger with good friends. Then dinner, drinks, and cigarettes late into the evening.

In a way, it’s the dream. The French never have to deprive themselves of sensory pleasure. Not the way we do. In America, we eat, then wait to eat, then eat again. Most of us spend the entire day looking forward to breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. And if we don’t have the wherewithal to wait, we end up overeating, which of course leads to obesity, and obesity is so much worse than smoking. Everyone says so.

And then there’s the fact that smokers are more healthy than non-smokers because they are so social

Oh and then there’s the social aspect. As Jessica Reed points out: “Smoking in France is still very much associated with the arts and joyous debauchery, rather than fecklessness or a lack of self-control.” It’s about spending an evening in the company of good friends, eating at a café, and drinking red wine while smoking cigarettes. And there actually could be some health benefits to that.

Case in point: the Roseto Effect whereby the Italian quarry workers of Roseto, Pennsylvania had no risk of heart disease and enjoyed half the national death rate despite the fact that its residents smoked like chimneys, drank with reckless abandon, and ate sausages and meatballs fried in lard. When studied, it was determined that their “tight-knit community” was to blame for this anomaly. That the health benefits of having close friends far outweighed the consequences of smoking. In other words: loneliness is so much worse than smoking. Everyone says so.

Which means that smokers are less healthy than non-smokers because smoking decreases longevity. And yet smokers are more healthy than non-smokers because they have reduced rates of obesity which increases longevity. And then there’s the fact that smokers are more healthy than non-smokers because they are more social which increases longevity. So perhaps it’s not the cigarettes that are so detrimental to our health, but rather how we’re smoking them.

Can we smoke like the French and still be healthy?

But I’m posturing. Because certainly smoking is not healthy and we have anecdotes of our own to prove it. After all, how many of our grandparent’s generation have passed away due to smoking-related illnesses? (half of mine did—the other half didn’t smoke). Yet we know also that maintaining a slender physique and spending evenings with close friends can have tremendous benefits for our health. So much so that it can sometimes outweigh the negative consequences of smoking (as in Roseto).

Some may even go so far as to say that smoking causes a healthy lifestyle—in general people who smoke eat less and socialize more which can have many positive health benefits (as in France)—but that doesn’t shake the reality that smoking in and of itself comes with serious side-effects. In other words, smoking doesn’t cause the French to live a healthy lifestyle, rather their healthy lifestyle keeps them healthy despite the fact that they smoke.

So no matter how fancy the French may look while they’re smoking cigarettes along the Seine, I’m not going to risk it. Instead, I’m going to borrow from the rest of their evening. The part where I get to wear a designer sweater, sit at my favorite café downtown, and enjoy a leisurely evening with friends over good food and great wine. By doing so I can enjoy all the health benefits of living my life to the full—and I don’t need to smoke to do that.

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