Smoke in their eyes
I don't smoke. I have not smoked since my early 20s when I became aware that a 20 to 30 a day habit of Players No6 was having a very nasty affect on my lungs. I do not dispute that smoking is filthy, unhealthy and compulsive. But I resent the move to ban tobacco advertising just as much as I used to enjoy that first drag of the day.
The recent announcement that the tobacco industry will no longer be able to advertise sums up the willingness of the New Labour government to censor and illustrates the contempt in which they hold us.
In their eyes we are so naive and gullible that we look at the glossy, sophisticated images projected by the Silk Cut and B&H hoardings and accept the subliminal messages that by smoking we too can become sophisticated and debonair. We are so weak-willed in the government's opinion that for our own good we need protection from the mention of tobacco brands. Typically, health promotion pundits have whinged that banning adverts doesn't go far enough and that sports promotion and sponsorship from the tobacco industry must cease too. And typically the government has agreed to consider their case.
The only opposition to this blatantly totalitarian proposal has come from the industry, which has argued rather lamely that the government is indulging in 'gesture politics'. The likes of Imperial Tobacco argue that advertising does not encourage people to start smoking, rather it influences existing smokers in their choice of brands. Anti-smoking groups countered that even if adults are not seduced by the glamorous images children are.
Personally I doubt whether kids can make much sense of cigarette advertising. I have trouble interpreting what many of the billboards are trying to convey. For many years now, as a result of tightening regulations and self-censorship, the tobacco industry has relied on increasingly obscure messages to promote its products. Actual cigarettes are rarely in sight. Those wonderful images of Humphrey Bogart or Steve McQueen exuding sex appeal as they exhale smoke are long gone, as are the men in doctors' coats who used to explain the health benefits of certain brands. Instead the billboards are filled by arty pictures of frayed bits of cloth and empty bird cages. The only indication that most cigarette ads are advertising fags is a strap of enormous letters across the bottom warning you that smoking does serious harm to your health.
It does not seem plausible that anybody could believe that a picture of a gigantic pair of scissors cutting a purple sheet of silk could cajole a 12-year old into spending his pocket money on a packet of cigarettes. Already voluntary codes mean that tobacco products are not advertised in the immediate vicinity of schools. But even if kids were inspired by ads to buy a packet of 10, there are laws to prevent retailers retailing to them. The argument that Silk Cut ads should be banned because they might encourage children to smoke has no more weight than the argument that advertisements for Golf GTis should be banned because they inspire children to joyride.
There is something deeply disturbing about the argument that adults should be denied the chance to appreciate a com-pany's attempt to promote its products in case children are inadvertently affected. It ends up reducing us all to the level of children with simple minds, unable to make rational choices about how we wish to live our lives. But then, in many ways, that is how the government regards us: impressionistic, easily led and inclined to believe the false promises of slick-talking advertisers. Cynics might say that the recent landslide Labour victory is evidence to prove their point.
The argument that cigarette advertising should be banned because they are bad for our health is also much more problematic than it sounds. When you start on that route where do you end up - banning the advertising of high-sugar products, slapping a health warning on butter ads, car commercials, lager adverts, what?
I think we need to take a stand for grown-ups and reject the argument that we, or our children, need protection from the messages of advertisers. I do not need a health minister to protect me from corrupting messages. I am capable of using my own judgement to reject or accept commercials. As for children - surely it is preferable for us to make it clear that there are things adults do and children don't do (like smoke and drink) and there are things children do and adults don't (like go to school and do homework). Protecting children from exposure to advertising does not protect them from exposure to the real world. Protecting adults from exposure to advertising is patronising, insulting and probably a taste of the future.
Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997