Bringing smokers to their knees

A French poster unwittingly reveals the kind of relationship the therapeutic state wants to have with tobacco users.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

A controversial anti-tobacco campaign comparing smokers to child prostitutes has caused a stir in France. The adverts, designed by the campaign group Droits des Non-Fumeurs (Non-smokers’ Rights), show young boys and girls with cigarettes in their mouths and kneeling before older men. While the imagery marks a new low in the anti-smoking crusade, the message that smokers are slaves to the ‘evil weed’ is not at all novel.

For instance, in 2007 the UK Department of Health (DoH) launched an advertising campaign called Get Unhooked. The television ads showed adults being pierced through the cheek with a fish hook and violently dragged outside so they could light up a fag. The campaign was eventually taken off air following complaints that it was ‘offensive’ and likely to ‘frighten and distress’ children. The DoH justified the ads by arguing that the public should be aware of the ‘controlling nature of addiction to nicotine experienced by smokers every day’.

It’s hard to think of a more patronising image of smokers than this comparison of them to helpless creatures, ‘hooked’ and lacking self-control. Yet now it seems Droits des Non-Fumeurs has managed to top the Get Unhooked campaign. Their posters likening smokers to child sex abuse victims have reportedly ‘shocked’ the French public. The sexual innuendo here is clear: the suggestion is that the men with bulging bellies are about to force the young smokers to perform fellatio on them. The accompanying slogan reads: ‘Smoking means being a slave to tobacco.’

The French anti-smoking campaign images

Here, cigarettes are shown to have a paedophile-like hold over smokers, who, like naive and helpless children, are duped into sticking ‘cancer sticks’ in their mouths. Droits des Non-Fumeurs has said that the campaign targets young people ‘who see cigarettes as symbols of emancipation, of freedom, when it really causes dependency and submission’.

The message is clear: smokers are addicts completely out of control of their actions and in dire need of help. So campaign groups take it upon themselves to shock people to their senses, while health officials offer to step in to help smokers kick their habit and governments ban smoking from public places for ‘people’s own good’.

When smokers aren’t portrayed as ‘hooked’, ‘addicted’ or ‘enslaved’, they are viewed as compulsive liars. This is the thinking behind a set of guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) on how to stop women from smoking during pregnancy and after childbirth. NICE suggests that all pregnant women should be required to take regular breath tests that monitor carbon monoxide (CO) levels so that health officials can tell if they’re harming their babies by continuing to have a crafty fag or two. And just to be on the safe side, NICE also recommends pregnant women take regular urine and saliva tests.

Considering the contemporary pariah status of smokers, it is hardly surprising if pregnant women try to hide their ‘filthy habit’ from health officials and from peers. NICE, too, recognises that the primary reason for pregnant women lying about smoking is because ‘the pressure not to smoke during pregnancy is so intense’.

Once a woman has been outed as a smoker, NICE recommends she is offered a wide range of options for obtaining assistance: Stop Smoking services, the national pregnancy smoking hotline, and special local groups that provide ‘intensive and ongoing support’. If a smoking mother-to-be decides to quit by herself and declines assistance, NICE emphasises that the offer of help should remain open, all records should be logged and she should be nagged again next time she has a doctor’s appointment.

And why stop with the mother? Welcoming the NICE guidelines, Robin Hewings, Cancer Research UK’s tobacco control manager added that ‘Pregnant women should receive as much help as possible to give up, so they can help give the healthiest possible start to their children. It’s also a good idea to help fathers to quit, so that children benefit from a smoke-free household, which reduces the risk of them becoming smokers later in life’.

Is quitting smoking really that difficult? Many simply decide to scrunch up their pack of fags and go cold turkey. Some researchers have suggested that this is in fact a more effective method than entering into an ‘intense and ongoing’ therapeutic relationship with the state. Moreover, as an influential study has argued, the more addictive we perceive the properties of nicotine to be, the more difficulties we are likely to have quitting.

Campaigns that portray smokers as ‘hooked’ or ‘enslaved’ to tobacco reinforce the impression that they are uncontrollably addicted. But rather than simply encouraging smokers to shake off their dependency on cigarettes, people are instead drawn into an even more insidious form of dependency upon state assistance. And as any ex-smoker treated by the National Health Service will know, in the eyes of the ‘agents of persuasion’, if you’ve ever smoked then there’s a continual risk of relapsing, which needs to be closely monitored.

What’s often overlooked in discussions around smoking is that, while two thirds of smokers say they want to quit, there is another third that are perfectly happy continuing to smoke. As anyone who’s used cigarettes to fuel themselves through heated discussions, tight deadlines or simply a night out on the town, smoking can aid concentration, can relax and stimulate you in equal measures and, moreover, is a pleasurable thing to do. US President Barack Obama, for example, admitted to smoking (albeit only eight a day at ‘peak times’) during campaigning. He said: ‘I figure, seeing as I’m running for president, I need to cut myself a little slack.’ Indeed the benefits of smoking have been demonstrated in scientific tests.

That’s not to suggest smoking isn’t bad for your health. But while smoking is estimated to take an average of six to 10 years off someone’s life, a few extra years in retirement doesn’t necessarily appeal to those who prefer to live in the fast lane. The pros and cons of smoking and quitting are best left to people to weigh up for themselves.

According to a 2009 Guardian ’health factfile’, 32 per cent of the UK population are ex-regular cigarette smokers. This suggests it’s hardly the greatest feat in the world to quit smoking. With a bit of discipline, it’s not too hard to cut down or to crumple up that last pack and resist the urges.

Smokers are as responsible for their actions as anybody else. To buy into the claim that we cannot control ourselves is to shun responsibility for our own personal choices. Such an outlook will indeed make you a slave – to the therapeutic agents who want to brand you as an ‘ex-smoker’ for life.

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

Patrick Hayes reported on the attempt to ban smoking in London’s shisha bars. Christopher Snowdon talked to Rob Lyons about anti-smoking Puritanism. Patrick Basham and John Luik reported on the dodgy research supporting the smoking ban. Tim Black described the BMA as busybody killjoys. spiked writers around the world reported on the global crusade against the ‘evil weed’.  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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