In one of the strangest debates that’s resulted from the spate of shootings and bombings across Paris last November, French school administrators are weighing the dangers of teen smoking against the threat of potential terrorist attacks.
In order to protect students from becoming targets of the sort of terrorists who killed more than 130 in popular restaurants and venues, some principals are now allowing students to smoke in designated areas within their schools.
“We’ve been able to smoke inside for a few weeks now,” an 18 year old student at a high school in Paris told VICE. “Before, there were a lot of small groups crowded together [outside], and honestly, it was an easy target for an attack.”
Anne, who was identified only by her first name, said she smokes two to three cigarettes a day. She’s hardly alone. While tobacco use has declined precipitously since the 1960s, when a cigarette seemed to hang from the mouth of every notable French actress and intellectual, one-third of French adults smoke. The rate is the same for 17-year-olds, although anecdotal evidence seems to suggest an even higher figure.
In contrast to the country’s reputation, France has world’s most stringent anti-smoking laws. Last year, the government banned smoking on playgrounds and in cars with children. Schools and universities have been smoke-free for a decade.
For some, the decision to allow students to smoke inside is a necessary exception during a time of insecurity — not unlike the tough anti-terrorism laws invoked by the state of emergency.
The suggestion to create “designated areas within schools” to keep students from leaving the building to smoke was first put forth by a government circular in the days after the coordinated attacks on Paris.
It now has the support of SNPDEN, a large union of school administrators.
Michel Richard, the union’s Deputy Secretary General, told France Info that it is “necessary in this particular context to protect against the biggest risks.”
“Students massing on the street constitutes a very high risk,” he said, “one that is certainly greater than that posed by the consumption of tobacco.”
That notion is in dispute, however.
Dr. Alain Rigaud of France’s National Association for Alcohol and Addiction Prevention warned of the “devastating consequences” of the relaxed approach to smoking in high schools.
“Smoking is a major scourge, that kills one out of every two long-term smokers,” he said. “Over the next thirty years, that’s around 125,000 students from France’s current high school population who will die because of smoking. That’s huge compared to terror attacks.”
By his count, 30 schools in the greater Paris area have already created designated smoking areas within schools.