Warning: smoker-bashing damages public health

The new cigarette-pack photos send a clear message: conform to Healthy Living or face a life of state-sponsored mockery.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Is there no limit to the UK government’s largesse? Not content with giving a helping hand to the nation’s struggling bankers, yesterday it offered smokers a choice of 15 different pornographic images to enjoy while on a fag break.

These images are not off the top shelf, however. Following similar campaigns in 23 other countries, including Canada, Brazil and Australia, the pictures have come directly from the Department of Health (DoH) and will appear on cigarette packets across the UK. Featuring rotting teeth or open-heart surgery, and accompanied by beguiling sentences like ‘Smoking clogs the arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes’, the aim, in the words of UK chief medical officer Liam Donaldson, is to ‘emphasise the harsh health realities of continuing to smoke’.

But did the ‘harsh realities’ of smoking really need any more emphasis? Since 2003, cigarette packets have been adorned with such artful subtleties as ‘Smoking kills’ and ‘Smoking seriously harms others around you’. Admittedly, ‘Smoking kills’, lacking an object, does sound a little indiscriminate, but, by and large, the message is pretty clear: nicotine is bad for you. Add to that the DoH’s anti-smoking advertising campaigns, alternately guilt-inducing and stomach-churning, the school awareness sessions, and, of course, the smoking ban in public places, and it’s difficult to imagine that smokers were unaware of the health effects of their trusty ‘cancer sticks’.

Little wonder that the DoH’s ever-increasing efforts seem to produce ever-diminishing returns. After all, what more information do smokers need? Will a picture of two contrasting sets of lungs, the unhealthy one a lovely mahogany colour, the healthy a deathly white, really tell a smoker something they didn’t already know? It’s not as if the accompanying tag line – ‘smoking causes fatal lung cancer’ – will come as much of a surprise. Or take the rather horrific picture of a man with a wispy beard beneath which bulges the raw fleshy outgrowth of throat cancer. ‘Smoking can cause a slow and painful death’, it reminds the smoker. (Strictly speaking it’s the cancer that’s causing the ‘slow and painful death’). Perhaps the strangest, though, depicts what can only be described as a wilting cigarette. Underneath is written ‘Smoking may reduce the blood flow and causes impotence’. Given its surreal pretensions, ‘This is not a cigarette’ would have been more fitting.

In many ways, whether these images do any more to convince smokers to quit is beside the point. For these images don’t so much address the intransigent hardcore of campaign-defying smokers as pander to the fantasies of health crusaders, be it fag-handlers’ droop or medieval dentistry.

The effect is twofold: on the one hand, they turn smokers into objects of bodily disgust. From images of tarred lungs to rotting teeth, the implication is clear: smokers are dirty and revolting. On the other hand, as exemplified by the piece of phallocentric surrealism, smokers are humiliated: they are portrayed as suitable targets for mockery, be it their inability ‘to get it up’ or their plain-as-day ignorance of their horrific, facially disfiguring demise. Indeed, this last sentiment behind the new images, the presumed thickness of smokers, is writ large in the very existence of the DoH’s campaign. Despite all the information out there about the risks of smoking, you continue to do it, it says, because you are monumentally stupid. In fact, so unfeasibly thick does it presume smokers are, the DoH has decided it had to use pictures, not just words.

The effect is to reinforce the image of smokers as the lowest of the low, the imbecilic ruiners not just of their own lungs (and hearts and teeth and throats and skin) but of others’ health, too. The proximity of these images to pornography proper is striking. If pornography objecitifies women in terms of the male gaze, turning them into objects for a very specific mode of consumption, then this pictorial addition to the anti-smoking crusade provides similar relief for the anti-smoking lobby. It transforms those who choose to smoke into objects of moral and not-so-moral masturbation. And just as it is argued that in objectifying females, porn influences women’s self-perception, so this set of images aims to transfer the image of smokers as revolting, selfish imbeciles to smokers themselves. Sin becomes guilt; disgust becomes self-disgust.

While it is debatable that these images will make much of a difference to those who smoke, they will inflame the zeal of those who would have them stop. More broadly, they will further stigmatise the smoker, pushing him even further beyond the social pale. Already huddling outside Britain’s pubs as the objects of politically subsidised sanctimony, these mocking images will only elevate the smoker’s standing in the constellation of social pariahs.

It is this sanctimonious climate that differentiates the anti-smoking crusade from the public health campaigns of old. There is no practical message in this latest campaign; it is purely moralistic. This is not about access to clean water or the need to get a certain jab; it is about submission to moral instruction. ‘People ought to be living a healthy life’ is the message; every last one of the disgustingly unhealthy infidels must be converted to the cause.

In committing itself so fully to the pursuit, not of the Good Life but of its pale imitation – the healthy life – the government renders each citizen’s body as the effective property of the state. To not dispose of it as one ought is to bring down society’s wrath upon oneself. Whittled down to objects of lifestyle diktat, you either conform or enjoy a lifetime of state-inspired persecution.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black called the BMA’s attack on ‘pro-smoking’ imagery censorious. Rob Lyons looked at the crazy world of England’s smoking ban and accused UK health campaigners of smoking smokers out of polite society. spiked writers around the world reported on the global crusade against the ‘evil weed’. Nathalie Rothschild reported on a rare protest against the English smoking ban. Mick Hume reflected on what the ban says about today’s society. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.

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Topics Politics


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