"These days when someone smokes in the movies, they're either a psychopath, or a European. The message Hollywood needs to send out is, 'smoking is cool'," claims Aaron Eckhart's character in the film Thank You For Smoking.
I have a confession to make, and it’s probably not the wisest one for a health reporter.
I think smoking is cool.
And after a week hanging out in Singapore at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health, I can’t help wondering how that cool-factor can be overcome.
As much fun as public health people are (note: this is, mostly, not sarcasm), how can a PhD or an advocacy body overcome years of art, culture and ideas?
In fact, basically every study that asks young smokers about coolness finds it is a big factor in why people start smoking.
From the US to Africa to Australia, the story is the same. And what other reason would you have? If you are interested in drug-taking, I actually don’t understand why you would pick tobacco. Unlike alcohol or even other drugs like ecstasy, all it really does is give you head-spins and make you addicted.
That’s part of what Australia’s plain-packaging legislation is about, taking away the kinds of associations people have with different cigarette brands. (When I was in high school, the girls smoked Marlborough lights, I think because they were all white and seemed sexier. Tough guys smoked Marlboro Reds, people slumming it the right amount smoked Winnie Blues and people slumming it too much smoked Holidays).
In the movie Thank You For Smoking Nick Naylor says tobacco companies need to make smoking cool again.
"These days when someone smokes in the movies, they're either a psychopath, or a European. The message Hollywood needs to send out is, 'smoking is cool'," he says.
But the reality is, they don’t even need to work hard at it, they can rest on their laurels.
Not that they do, of course. Nowadays cigarette ads come in pink, and Hello Kitty, just like they used to come in dancing girls and ballrooms.
And still more than half of all movies rated as for children and young people feature characters who smoke, despite the fact children who are repeatedly exposed to smoking in movies are more likely to give it a try.
And the problem is that there is a cool cigarette image for almost any role you want to play. Glamorous, grungy, intellectual, badass etc etc.
Journalism as an industry prides itself as a hard-living, hard-hitting kind of club. So I’m used to the eye rolls at Friday night drinks when I ask if we can please not sit in the tiny smoking box at the pub because I don’t really feel like spending my night in a cramped tobacco bong.
But the cigarette, typewriter and booze are so etched into our idea of ourselves that no amount of whingeing from me is going to change that.
In Singapore, years of ‘top-down’ attacks on smoking from an authoritarian government actually succeeded in getting smoking down to a historical low rate of 12.6 per cent in 2004, before it crept back up to about 14 per cent.
But with plenty of cashed-up cool kids taking up the habit, they are finding that just aint working anymore.
Now they’re recruiting former smokers through facebook and other means and getting them to become more active in their identity of ‘non-smoker’.
“We need to maintain our tough top-down approach and complement that by mobilising Singaporeans to come forward and be part of a national ground-up social movement that will ‘de-normalise’ smoking and promote a tobacco-free lifestyle as the social norm,” the chief executive of Singapore’s health promotion board, Ang Hak Seng, told the world tobacco conference.
Who knows, perhaps it might work. I suspect it won’t work in cases where it seems like people who don’t know how to have fun telling you what to do, but it just might when the popular kids decide to play along.
Otherwise tobacco campaigners will have to rely on people who, like I did a few years ago now, decide feeling a bit cooler by having a cigarette just isn’t worth it.
Amy Corderoy attended the World Conference on Tobacco or Health courtesy of the Singapore Health Promotion Board.