Rethinking Healthcare

The French Secret

Posting in Cancer

There is a devil behind many Parisiens' thin bodies. It comes in a paper tube, and you light the end of it. Then you inhale.

The French have another secret to staying thin, one the authorities there don't want you to know about.

Smoking.

It may be true that most Frenchmen don't smoke, but those who do more than make up for it. You can't smoke indoors anymore, and they don't. But if you try to sit in a cafe, or just walk down the street, well if you're sensitive it's a gauntlet.

I am sensitive to tobacco smoke, and in Atlanta I'm able to avoid it, because the outdoor cafes are isolated in the center of town and I hold my breath when I pass smokers by.

You can't do that in Paris. The streets are paved with tobacco smoke. With smoking disallowed inside it all goes outside. Most streets are narrow one-way passages – you can't hold your breath that long. We actually passed workers installing new electrical line on the Champs Ellysee, and I swear the guy pulling the heaviest load had a cigarette in his mouth.

Nicotine is a drug, a highly addictive drug, and the dirty secret of America's health system is we don't address its “positive aspects.”

Smoking dulls the senses. It makes you feel wide-awake and relaxed, all at once. You lose much of your sense of taste and smell – what Parisien smokers taste at dinner is mostly texture.

Smoking burns you up from the inside, but while the fire lives it's a heat you can rely on. The calories you get can burn away in the flames, and you're not especially anxious to add more.

This is why long-time smokers, like author (and now TV star) Anthony Bourdain stay so thin while they're smoking, and gain 20 pounds or more after they quit. This is the real picture of Dorian Gray, and when you finally put the cigarette down is where the years come on.

When I was a kid, we had some of the earliest, classic anti-smoking announcements. Bill Talman from Perry Mason. Yul Brynner. They looked straight at the camera and told us. I'm dying. I have cancer. Don't start.

Yet millions of kids do, because smoking does help keep you thin, and it feels so good. After just three days in Paris I was feeling the effects. I didn't get tired in the afternoon, couldn't get to sleep at night. I was feeling wired, as when I'd done a week-long cruise among smokers in the 1990s.

I was happy to get away. But be warned. There is a devil behind many Parisiens' thin bodies. It comes in a paper tube, and you light the end of it. Then you inhale.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure