France Is About to Bid Adieu to Smoking E-Cigarettes in Public

Health minister Marisol Touraine's plan would prohibit inhaling e-cig vapor in restaurants, bars, and educational institutions.

(Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The French may be known for giving a Gallic shrug to health warnings about smoking, but puffing electronic cigarettes in public in France is about to become passé. The nation’s health minister, Marisol Touraine, is proposing a ban on using the battery-powered devices that have become a common replacement for traditional tobacco cigs in bars, cafés, and restaurants, as well as enclosed spaces at schools and colleges.

Back in 2007, the country banned lighting up cancer sticks in public. Since then the number of French citizens who smoke dropped from 33 percent to 27 percent of the population. Despite that success, nearly 73,000 people in France die every year from smoking-related cancers. With nearly a million people in the European nation adopting e-cigs, Le Figaro reports that Touraine is moving to treat the devices like regular cigarettes. 

E-cigs use a cartridge that contains a solution made of water, propylene glycol, and nicotine. Once the device is turned on, it heats the liquid, turning it into vapor, which is then inhaled and exhaled by the user. The concern of health officials in France and elsewhere (public smoking of e-cigs is already banned in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles) is that e-cig manufacturers have claimed the devices are a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes. Manufacturers say that because the devices don’t contain carcinogenic tar they’re a smart alternative for folks who are trying to quit smoking. 

That claim might not be true. The nicotine in e-cigarettes is still addictive, meaning that once you start using the devices, it could still be tough to stop. There is also plenty of worry on the part of health experts that the heated propylene glycol might cause cancer. Whether there is a negative effect from inhaling the vapor, or breathing it in secondhand, is still unknown. 

Teenagers are also flocking to the devices, often choosing to smoke an e-cig instead of a regular cigarette. Youths could then be hooked on liquid nicotine, or even switch to tobacco products to get a fix. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed regulations that would prohibit the “healthier alternative” advertising claim and the sale of the devices to minors. Touraine plans to implement similar rules.

E-cig supporters aren’t thrilled about Touraine’s push to make it tougher to use the devices. "Tobacconists are fed up with being stigmatized at a time when instead the government should be doing something about the unemployment rate," Pascal Montredon, the president of the French Tobacconists' Confederation, told the Guardian. If Touraine’s proposal is approved, France will become the first European nation to put the kibosh on e-cigs.

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