PARIS - From Brigitte Bardot to Marion Cotillard, the French dame effortlessly flicking her cigarette from a Parisian café terrace has oozed sex appeal for years. Soon, however, ladies may be trading in ash trays for off buttons as electronic cigarettes take France by storm.
Over the past two years, Lucky Strikes and Gauloises have been threatened by the emerging electronic cigarette, adopted by a culture that has been smoking tobacco since the 1500s. An invention attributed to a Chinese inventor and made public in 2004, the rechargeable devices function by allowing users to inhale a vaporized liquid, usually propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, both common products in foods and pharmaceuticals.
The devices do not burn, emitting virtually no toxic or cancer-causing fumes like traditional cigarettes, though the long-term impact of inhaling the vapors remains unclear. Able to maintain the sensation and gesture of smoking without smoke, tar, or nicotine, many attribute their smoking cessation to electronic cigarettes, sparking controversy and debate worldwide.
In France, the so-called e-cigarettes are still a novelty, with several distributors offering the French an alternative in light of changing cultural norms. But the novelty factor is giving way to a potentially booming industry as 500,000 French are already daily users of the devices.
Founded in 2011, the boutique Clopinette has become a leader in the e-cigarette market in France, with 20 stores across the country that could triple in number by the end of the year. They'll also be expanding into Italy and Spain, where the number of smokers isn't far behind that of France.
Business partners Karen Warin and Eric de Goussencourt develop websites for niche products, working in close proximity. When Warin couldn't tolerate her partner's smoking anymore in 2011, he experimented with e-cigarettes and eventually quit traditional combustion cigarettes, inspiring their new online retail site dubbed Clopinette. Literally translating to "diddly squat", the name is also a cutesy play on words for clope, kind of like "ciggie" in French.
"Afterwards, we launched a boutique because people found the website but needed advice, so we thought it was an added value to have a shop to explain the product," Warin said.
Clopinette sources electronic components from China and flavored liquids from France. Their shops feature staff that is specially trained to sell their products and to keep them out of the wrong hands, refusing to sell to children, pregnant women, or non-smokers. E-cigarettes, some containing nicotine and some without, are not yet medically approved by the French government to stop smoking. The marketing is turned more towards smoking differently.
"It's an alternative to smoking, so you have no odor, you keep the same gesture, and you don't bother those around you. And it's a big money saver," she said. Purchasing a single 10mL liquid cartridge for around 6 euros (8 USD) will replace the equivalent of more than 200 cigarettes (or 10 packs), and at nearly 7 euros (9.50 USD) a pack, plus rising taxes, well, you do the math.
The business venture was well-timed. By 2008, smoking inside all public places, including restaurants and clubs, was officially outlawed, marking a turning point for smokers in France. Even Paris's mayor, a smoker, is aiming to clean up the streets this year by imposing fines on those who don't properly snub and dispose of their butts in newly designed trash cans citywide.
Still, despite efforts to discourage smoking including mandatory warnings on packaging (fumer tue, literally "smoking kills"), nearly a third of the country smokes, more than when the first smoking ban went into place. Could the e-cigarette curb these rates?
While some 76% of French smokers have cited the ability of e-cigarettes to help quit smoking the ANSM, France's national medical safety board, refuses to acknowledge e-cigarettes as a medical product to kick nicotine addiction. Axelle de Franssu, communications director for the ASSM, said that the devices are not controlled by the ANSM, unlike anti-smoking patches or gums, and thus cannot be sold in pharmacies. "I don't think manufacturers will be very willing to ask for medical validation," she said, "but if they ask, then we will deal with it."
But according to Warin, e-cigarettes are best kept out of pharmacists' hands, since the products often require technical repairs and other services that could be difficult to address. "I'm not sure that they'll be structured to sell this type of cigarette," she said.
Despite the success stories of those who kicked the habit, studies are needed to establish causality between e-cigarettes and long-term smoking cessation, and more importantly, to identify the potential downsides of the devices. One French study for the ANSM in 2011 points only to the nicotine in some e-cigarettes as dangerous without speculating on the long-term effects of the propylene glycol and other flavored liquids that are vaporized and inhaled. Another studied provided encouraging results on quitting, but only during the course of three months.
While Clopinette boasts that their e-ciagarettes are 1,000 times less toxic than traditional cigarettes, French doctors remain skeptical.
Without any medical disapproval, however, smokers have been lining up at Clopinette. "Consumers are satisfied by the impact of the e-cigarette, either to stop or slow down their smoking habits," Warin said.
Clopinette is poised to take its share of the market with few competitors with physical shops in Paris or the rest of France. And with virtually no negative feedback to date, it seems that, at least externally, everyone is pleased. "It's a way to reconcile the smokers and non-smokers," Warin said.