France Debates Vaping: How Best To Separate Teens From Their Puffs?


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France Debates Vaping: How Best To Separate Teens From Their Puffs?
France Debates Vaping: How Best To Separate Teens From Their Puffs?

Last week, the French Assembly moved ahead a bill to ban disposable electronic cigarettes, known in France as puffs, over environmental concerns and worries that they’re a gateway to smoking cigarettes, especially for young people.

Smoking remains the No. 1 cause of avoidable death in France. And while puffs, e-cigarettes, and other smoking substitutes were initially created to help people quit, they are increasingly being used as a first smoking experience among young people.

Why We Wrote This

As France closes in on a ban of e-cigarette puffs to prevent teen smoking, some experts are asking if would it be more effective to try to persuade young vapers to give up the habit.

But unlike a decade ago, when twice as many young people smoked as today, a growing number of teens now say cigarettes are something they’ve already tried and given up, or have no interest in experimenting with.

The puffs ban is expected to go into effect later next year, after the Senate votes on it. But some observers say the only way to stomp out smoking among teens is through accountability and mutual respect.

“Should we go towards prohibition and fear, or empowerment?” says Elodie Gentina, a researcher and professor of marketing. “We’ve found that instead of bombarding young people with the risks of smoking, if we can get them to participate in the discussions and give them feelings of autonomy, they’ll make healthier decisions.”

It’s nearly the end of lunch break and high school friends Candice, Kenza, and Jade sit cross-legged on the concrete courtyard next to a local grocery store in the east of Paris. Huddled on the sidewalk behind them are other small groups of teens.

Almost all have two things in hand: a cellphone and a disposable electronic cigarette, known in France as a puff. Most are colorful plastic canisters; one is white with flashing red and blue lights.

“Puffs don’t make your hands and clothes stink like cigarettes,” says Kenza, pulling a violet puff from her front sweatshirt pocket and taking a drag, as a plume of berry-scented smoke fills the space above her head. She withheld her last name because she is a minor. “You don’t have to go to a tobacco shop to buy them. You can get them on Snapchat.”

Why We Wrote This

As France closes in on a ban of e-cigarette puffs to prevent teen smoking, some experts are asking if would it be more effective to try to persuade young vapers to give up the habit.

“Most people I know smoke puffs now, not cigarettes,” adds Candice, her blond hair gelled back in a tight bun. She is also a minor. “We have no intention of smoking cigarettes later on.”

The French government is not convinced. Last week, the French Assembly moved ahead a bill to ban puffs over environmental concerns – the plastic canisters are thrown out after around 600 inhalations – and worries that with their attractive packaging and easy access, they’re a gateway to smoking cigarettes, especially for young people.

Smoking remains the No. 1 cause of avoidable death in France. And while puffs, e-cigarettes, and other smoking substitutes were initially created to help people quit, they are increasingly being used as a first smoking experience among young people.

But unlike a decade ago, when twice as many young people smoked as today, a growing number of teens now say cigarettes are outdated, even “uncool” – something they’ve already tried and given up, or have no interest in experimenting with at all.

The puffs ban is expected to go into effect later next year, after the Senate votes on it. But experts debate whether it will be effective, or will only push young people to go to greater lengths to procure puffs. Some observers say the only way to stomp out smoking among teens – in all its forms – is through accountability and mutual respect.

“Should we go towards prohibition and fear, or empowerment?” says Elodie Gentina, a researcher and professor of marketing at the IÉSEG School of Management, and the author or three books on Generation Z. “Young people will always engage in risky behaviors as they build their sense of self and strive to be a part of the group.

“But we’ve found that instead of bombarding young people with the risks of smoking, if we can get them to participate in the discussions and give them feelings of autonomy, they’ll make healthier decisions.”

A new lure for teen smokers

Puffs first made their entry into the French market in 2021. Unlike more expensive e-cigarettes, which can be refilled with vape liquid cartridges, puffs are designed to be thrown away once empty. The brightly colored penlike tubes, available in flavors like marshmallow and bubble gum, offer roughly the equivalent of one packet of cigarettes’ worth of nicotine for around €8 ($8.64) each.

Although puffs are restricted for those under age 18, they’re easily procured through social media channels or shopkeepers willing to look the other way. According to a study by the nonprofit Alliance Against Tobacco, 13% of 13-to-16-year-olds in France had already tried puffs in 2022 and 28% of e-cigarette users say they started smoking with puffs.

“We’re seeing young people smoking e-cigarettes and puffs who have never smoked a cigarette before,” says Yana Dimitrovna, a tobacco prevention specialist at the French nonprofit National League Against Cancer. “Both contain nicotine and thus they’re vectors that generate addiction. And once [young people] have an addiction, there’s more of a risk they’ll eventually go to a cigarette as an adult.”

The proposed ban is hardly the first time the French government has addressed teen smoking. Since 2004, it has worked to restrict access and make it less inviting, by banning cigarette aromas and additives like menthol capsules, and progressively prohibiting smoking on school and university premises.

That’s in combination with a governmentwide plan to tackle smoking in France, including health warnings and neutral cigarette packaging, the removal of ads from public spaces, and continued price hikes. A pack of cigarettes now costs around €11. The government announced prices would go up to €12 in 2025 and €13 in 2026.

Instead of causing rebellion, those tactics have been largely dissuasive for teens. At the beginning of the 2000s, more than 40% of French 17-year-olds smoked regularly, according to the French Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT). Today, that figure is around 16%.

But e-cigarettes have escaped the phenomenon. The OFDT also studied how teens experiment with substances and found that compared with 2017, the use of all substances – including marijuana, alcohol, and illicit drugs – was down in 2022. All except for e-cigarette use, which rose by 9%.

“We’ve managed to de-normalize cigarette smoking by removing it significantly from films, raising prices, and offering subsidies to help people quit smoking,” says Amélie Eschenbrenner, spokesperson for the French nonprofit National Committee Against Tobacco. “The same needs to be done with e-cigarettes and puffs: neutral packaging and putting them in the cigarette aisle. Right now, they look like puff pastries.”

Information, not scare tactics

French anti-smoking nonprofits have found success by offering young people information about the harmful environmental effects of the tobacco industry as a way to incite them to stop smoking – instead of scare tactics.

The Alliance Against Tobacco and the National Committee Against Tobacco have both launched social media campaigns, highlighting the effects of cigarette butts on French beaches or the power of tobacco lobbyists.

“The decrease in teen smoking is in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made young people question the world more, whether it’s physical and mental health, the environment, or moral issues,” says Ms. Gentina, the Gen Z researcher. “They’re worried about the environment. They want to eat well. They’re looking for brands that are authentic and align with their values.

“The tobacco industry goes against all that, and their greenwashing doesn’t work for young people anymore.”

But misinformation remains, and research by the Alliance Against Tobacco showed that 20% of smokers thought that cigarette butts and puffs were biodegradable. Still, for as much flak as puffs have received, the vaping industry has felt sorely misunderstood, and some say that e-cigarettes are still primarily used by those looking to stop smoking and not the other way around.

In the United Kingdom, the government went even further last spring when its National Health Service launched a nationwide campaign called Swap To Stop, encouraging the use of vapes instead of cigarettes in an effort to cut smoking rates.

“Puffs are a controversial product. They’re a disaster for young people and for the environment, but there are adults as well as young people who are using puffs to stop smoking,” says Sébastien Béziau, vice president of Sovape, a Paris-based vaping advocacy organization. “The government decided on this ban too hastily. You can’t ban something without promoting something else.”

The government is banking on the fact that making puffs difficult to access will create a full stop on demand. But some e-cigarette shops, like J Well Belleville in the east of Paris, expect the ban to be partially or totally repealed. Many young people say they’re confident they’ll be able to find puffs through social media or by going across the border, even if the ban goes into effect.

And other attractively packaged, seemingly innocuous tobacco products are creeping into the market, like nicotine pouches – small tea-bag-like pouches placed between the lip and gums like chewing tobacco – and nicotine pearls, which resemble pieces of chewing gum. All the more reason, say activists, to continue efforts to address teen smoking on all fronts.

“I’ve never smoked; it disgusts me. I really don’t see the point,” says Jade, hoisting her backpack over her shoulder before returning to class with friends Candice and Kenza. “But if I were going to smoke something, it would probably be puffs.”


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