Why French Educators Want Teens to Smoke Cigarettes at School

High school principals are more afraid of terrorism than lung cancer.

Image via Flickr user iwishiwashannah

After the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, France’s largest union of high school principals (SNPDEN) sent a very French request to the Health Ministry: Allow students to smoke cigarettes on campus. The risk of an attack on teens gathered in groups outside school grounds (for cigarette breaks), the union argued, outweighed the health risks of inhaling nicotine and tar, the country’s leading cause of death.

Despite the ministry’s firm rejection of the counterintuitive plan in December, the Associated Press reports that the principals’ union renewed its demands this week, sending a letter on Tuesday that urged the prime minister to suspend the campus smoking ban for as long as France remains under a state of emergency. Several high schools in Paris were evacuated last month after fake bomb threats, and as a result, “parents, teachers, and students are worried,” SNPDEN academic secretary Patrick Humbert told L’Union. “Principals are caught in the crossfire.”

National debate over smoking regulations has raged since Health Minister Marisol Touraine introduced a policy package in 2014 designed to reduce tobacco consumption, especially among young people. Touraine’s proposal—widely protested, but ultimately passed in December—requires that cigarette packaging be free of branding and completely uniform in shape and color. It also bans e-cigarette advertising, smoking in public playgrounds, and smoking in cars with passengers under the age of 12. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy called the deal a battle over France’s identity, saying, “If we give here, we give in on everything.”

Puffing on high school campuses, however, has been illegal since 2006. As a result, the SNPDEN letter says, “During each recess, in more than 2,000 schools in France, dozens of youth, or even hundreds at the largest establishments, form static and compact groups in a predictable way for 15 to 20 minutes.” The union’s secretary general told France Info that these public smoke breaks pose “a very high risk” as terror targets.

This renewed disregard for the dangers of carcinogens comes a week after France announced that it will extend its widely protested state of emergency—which gives police unchecked power to close mosques, raid homes and businesses without a warrant, and place innocent citizens under house arrest—for three more months. The government has also proposed stripping the citizenship of any French-born dual national convicted of “terrorism,” which prompted the justice minister to resign.

So far, Touraine has refused to flatter high school principals’ fear mongering, holding strong in her war against the habit that’s killing 73,000 French people every year, a number she has compared to “a plane crash every day with 200 people on board.” Put differently, every year cigarettes kill more than 561 times as many French people as the November 13 attacks did.

Over a third of French 17-year-olds smoke regularly.

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