Sweet smell of Paris

Observations on smoke

Paris is one hour ahead of Britain, but to go there just at the moment feels like travelling backwards in time - to a land of smokers and public smoking. Admittedly there's now a slight delay before you encounter the full, anachronistic decadence. In 2006, the French introduced a ban on smoking in such large public enclosures as railway stations, so you must wait until you're outside the front door of the Gare du Nord before you begin to breathe that tangy air, which reminds me of our living room when I was a boy, and Uncle Peter visited. (Uncle Peter was a chain smoker, and, believe me, the past tense is very much appropriate.)

The American columnist Art Buchwald, who'd lived in Paris, called it "the city of lighters". Restaurants and bars are supposed to designate anti-smoking areas, but these often seem purely notional. In my favourite restaurant, Polidor in rue Monsieur le Prince, I reached across two tables to find an ashtray and smoked a cigar after my dinner, just to see whether I could. Nobody even glanced in my direction. In La Colombe on rue de la Paix, I ate a mushroom omelette and chips at the bar while the man next to me smoked from his stock of three packs of Marlboro Lights. At a nearby table, a woman was smoking a cheroot while chatting with her children.

Thirty-eight per cent of French people smoke, as opposed to 25 per cent of Britons, and my Francophilia is such that I long assumed they could do it with impunity. French smokers look more plausible and healthier than our own. They seem to be the stylish and intellectual kin of smokers such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Belmondo or Delon. Smoking symbolises the charming perversity that also makes them drink coffee in tiny cups and close the Louvre on Tuesdays.

In fact, the habit kills 65,000 French citizens a year. From February 2008, the creeping smoking ban will become absolute, and it will be impossible to smoke in bars and restaurants.

"It's going to be really interesting to see whether it's enforceable," an American friend of mine, resident in Paris, told me with a rather evil little smile on his face. He has twice been chucked out of the Gare du Nord for smoking. "I came here from California to get away from that kind of thing."

Whether it's enforceable or not, I see an opening over the next six months for a nimble British travel operator: smoking holidays in Paris. The tour parties might take in a round of tabacs; they might visit some of the English pubs, like the Frog and Rosbif on rue St Denis, where they can once again watch a Premiership football match in a pub while drinking and smoking. Or they might go to the hallowed shrines of Parisian smoking such as Les Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain, where Sartre worked and smoked undeterred by a warning that he would lose his legs if he didn't stop.

The attraction might be increased by the fact that, as from 14 November, Eurostar will take only two hours and 15 minutes to reach Paris from London. Paris is coming closer, but then again, from February 2008 it will be that little bit less Parisian.

Andrew Martin's latest novel, "Murder at Deviation Junction", is published by Faber & Faber (£10.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.