Does France need to learn to trust vaping?

French may be the language of love, but the country is currently experiencing more of a love-hate relationship with electronic cigarettes in the quest to cut smoking numbers. At the end of May, France announced a huge reduction in the number of smokers in 2017 – a major public health victory for a country well-known for its love affair with cigarettes. Around one million smokers have stubbed out their cigarettes for good according Public Health France – a drop the size of which has not been seen in a decade.

If their figures are to be believed, 26.9 per cent of adults smoke every day, compared to 29.4 per cent a year earlier. That means a reduction from 13.2 million to 12.2 million.

It does still leave France lagging behind a number of European countries – in 2016, only 15.8 per cent of UK adults smoked – but it means the French are well clear of near-neighbours Spain, Germany and Italy.

The reason for the fall is harder to establish. Public Health France claimed that the results were directly linked to a variety of anti-smoking measures, such as a ban on package advertising, higher cigarette pricing and public heath campaigns like national tobacco-free month.

But a study from independent consultancy Odoxa-Dentsu claims that the fall is actually down to the increasing popularity of electronic cigarettes. It points to the fact that more than two thirds of French people believe electronic cigarettes are an essential tool in the battle to reduce smoker numbers.

Also, given that 69 per cent of people say they combine vaping with smoking and only 30 per cent solely use electronic cigarettes, it suggests that the French are combining the two in an effort to cut down on cigarettes. The report concludes: “Vaping appears to be a far more important factor than other means of public health movements against smoking.”

It is a view that certain health professionals share.

Professor Bertrand Dautzenberg, lung and smoking specialist at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, said: “The most recent price rise (of cigarettes) is not the reason for this drop in the number of smokers, because it came into force before the Santé Publique France study.

“The effect of that price rise will only be shown in next year’s study. In contrast, I am convinced that vapes have played a major role (in the reduction in smoking numbers).”

That is a view that is not popular in all quarters, with France’s Ministry of Health taking its time to embrace vaping.

Historically, France has been sceptical of electronic cigarettes as a quitting tool.

Laws last year banned it in office spaces, public transport and any school establishment, despite France now vying with the UK for the highest number of vapers in Europe.

Interestingly, health minister Agnès Buzyn made no reference to vaping when discussing the drop in smoker numbers, which was in stark contrast to Public Health France chief Francois Bourdillon conceding that it was the primary cessation method of choice.

The picture could become blurred even further with heat-not-burn products, which work by heating tobacco to a temperature far lower than the 800C at which a normal cigarette burns. Heat-not-burn products have recently been given favourable reviews by studies in the UK and Germany. That has left experts pondering just how effective they could be in cutting smoking numbers without compromising public health.

It leaves France with a dilemma: truly embrace cessation aids such as electronic cigarettes and heat-not-burn, or potentially put their good work in cutting smoker numbers at risk.

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