The three ads show teenagers on their knees with cigarettes between their lips, their faces at a man's waist, looking submissively into his eyes. The advertising slogan says, "Smoking means being a slave to tobacco."
"We noticed that the traditional anti-smoking campaigns no longer got across amongst the youth. We thus had to use another way in order to raise awareness," Remi Parola, head of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association that is behind the campaign, told ABC News.
"We were surprised by the extent of the media buzz," Parola admitted. "But it's above all a message of public health that got across," he said.
But not everyone agrees.
"Its purpose was to shock and not convey a message. It is a profoundly mediocre operation," French Secretary of State for Family Nadine Morano told France 2 TV today. Yesterday, Morano asked for the campaign to be banned for offending public taste.
"I understand that this campaign can shock. The connotation in this campaign seems to me inappropriate," French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot told RTL radio yesterday, qualifying the campaign as "counterproductive."
Even the usually rather discreet tobacco makers and dealers have joined in the concert of protest. "To be compared to a pedophile because I work for a tobacco manufacturer is extremely shocking," Yves Trevilly, spokesman for the British American Tobacco in France, told ABC News.
On its Web site, the French tobacco dealer confederation considered that this campaign went too far. "It's no longer prevention, but out of place provocation," it said.
Other organizations have also strongly reacted to the campaign. Child welfare group Enfance et Partage said the campaign was cruel and insensitive toward young victims of sexual abuse.
Reactions on the street are skeptical.
"It's going to make young kids laugh. It's not going to have any effect on them. Pictures showing lungs in bad state would be more meaningful," Benjamin Masia told ABC News.
"I'm not sure it's going to make young kids stop smoking, but it could maybe have an impact on them," Benoit Ribue, an 18-year-old student, added.
"I think it could have an effect. Because in order to shock young people and make them react, strong pictures are necessary," said Fabienne, who would only give her first name. "I think it's going to make them laugh rather than anything else. It does not show the real harm smoking provokes," her colleague Evelyne added.
After a slight decrease following the smoking ban in France in 2007, the consumption of tobacco in France is on an upward trend. In 2009, 54.9 billion cigarettes were sold, an increase of 2.6 percent compared to 2008.
The trend is similar among teenagers according to the government: 18 percent of 16-year-olds were smokers between 2008-2009, compared to 14 percent between 2004-2007.
Today, 40 percent of smokers between 12 and 25 are already addicted to their cigarettes. Each year in France, 66,000 people die because of tobacco.
The ads, which will be published in newspapers and posted in bars, are expected to run until May 31.