PARIS, France — It only takes a short walk in the narrow streets of Paris to understand that smoking is an essential part of French culture, where it is tradition to light up while sitting outside a cafe. The word "cigarette" is even French in origin.
So it was a shock when France eventually decided to do what so many other Western countries had done years before: ban smoking in restaurants and cafes. That happened two years ago and the protests continue. There are multiple websites that purport to help smokers find French cafes where they can light up, for example. But one man has taken his protest to a higher level.
In January of 2010, Christophe Cedat, owner of the Cafe 203 in Lyon, set out to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day — just to see what it would to do to his body. Cedat, who is in his 40s, had not smoked in decades. He is documenting his experience on the www.demainjecommence.com ("tomorrowistart.com") with graphics showing the number of cigarettes he has smoked since January, and updates on his physical and mental health.
Ironically, prior to the smoking ban Cedat had opened one of France’s first non-smoking cafes. Fast-forward to today and he has a mini-van filled with thousands of cigarette butts, which he displays like a work of art. But Cedat said he is not out for publicity.
Cedat's van, where he saves the cigarette butts from his two-packs-a-day experiment. (Courtesy of Christophe Cedat))
“I do it to feel what it’s like to be a smoker,” he said. “I wanted to experiment the daily life of a smoker. It is a social activity, smokers give cigarettes to each others, you know, they lend their lighters.”
Of course to keep up his experiment, Cedat needs to smoke even when he doesn’t feel like it. But he said that there are three cigarettes that he always enjoys: “the first one in the morning, then after coffee and after dinner. These give rhythm to your day, they are like little rewards.”
But isn't he worried about his health?
“I am not a crazy adventurer,” Cedat said. “I have two kids, and my business is thriving.” A cardiologist and a psychologist have been monitoring him, he added. And he actually reduced his daily cigarette intake by half a pack after his doctor told him that he might die from a cardiac spasm if he kept smoking two packs a day.
Cedat intends to defend smokers’ rights, even though he was not one of them just four months ago.
“The issue with tobacco,” he said, “is that there are about 15 million smokers in France, you can’t treat them so harshly. I don’t understand why this law is so strict, when in other areas things are much more flexible.”
His cafe is now among France's few smoking bars. He got around the ban by building a large, covered terrace.
“I am an explorer,” Cedat said. “My cafe, for instance, is a fantastic social lab.”
Some of the young smokers whose rights Cedat is defending have actually discovered social benefits in the smoking ban.
The Mad Maker Pub near the Sorbonne University is one of Paris’ few bars with a smoking room. But on a recent day the smoking room was empty. Instead, a group of students was smoking on the sidewalk.
“It’s too cold in the smoking room,” said Gaetan Bialet, “so we prefer smoking outside.”
“It is not nice when you go somewhere and there is too much smoke,” said Nicolas Morin. “I was in Madrid last week and even at the airport they have smoking corners, it stank seriously — I understand non-smokers.”
According to Morin, the ban has helped to bring people together, in an age where people easily socialize online with strangers, but rarely talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus. Now, strangers smoking together outside will strike up conversation.
“There is also the flirting corner factor,” said Morin, “smoking helps you get closer to other people. Before, you could smoke a fag at your table, now you meet new people because you need to go outside to smoke.”