What do we think of smoking now?

"These days when someone smokes in the movies, they're either a psychopath, or a European. The message Hollywood needs ...

"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?

Advertisement

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.

32 comments

  • Some years ago I visited my dying father who was in a hospital ward with a number of other cancer patients. It was a delightful Spring afternoon and the last place anybody would want to be was in a bleak environment like that.
    Yet there I was and there were also elderly men in beds who should have been out playing with their grandchildren on a beach or at a park.
    Instead they were coughing phlemb into oxygen masks and had tubes inserted into them to assist with their bodily functions. One lovely old gent described the pain he was feeling as like being punched in the stomach.
    Was there anything 'cool' about all this? Hardly. One nurse remarked that she'd have liked to show that grim scene to the heads of tobacco companies and silly teens who think it's 'hip' to smoke.
    Smoking is just plain dumb. Don't do it kids and don't follow the bad example of a few daft adults.

    Commenter
    Mencius
    Date and time
    March 28, 2012, 10:23AM
    • Other reasons for not smoking should include:
      1.It makes breath and clothing stink.
      2.It's shockingly expensive. (One can almost purchase a book or CD for the price of a pack of cancer sticks.)
      3.It's a sign of emotional frailty in the young. ("I have to look cool or tough or I'm a social failure.")
      NB: I'm aware that I misspelt 'phlegm' earlier too.

      Commenter
      Mencius
      Date and time
      March 28, 2012, 11:11AM
  • It's obviously because, for some reason, kids are stupider.

    Otherwise, it wouldn't work !

    Commenter
    John May
    Location
    Urunga
    Date and time
    March 28, 2012, 10:27AM
    • Yeah I would have thought a lot of people would have grown out of such silliness like I did, it seems like lots have people have friends in their mid to late 20s who are still smoking and say they don't want to quite, and though they probably wont admit that's why they do it, they still think it's cool on some level! Perhaps teenage-hood extending into our later years?

      Commenter
      Amy Corderoy
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 28, 2012, 12:10PM
  • With Political Correctness assailing us from all angles, nothing says "I am a cool non-conformist" like lighting up.

    As for plain packaging, I have a number of very stylish cigarette cases with built-in lighters. I predict the sale of such accessories will increase, soon with tattoo-like emblems and deaths-heads on the cases.

    Commenter
    Aelred
    Location
    Rievaulx
    Date and time
    March 28, 2012, 10:40AM
    • Seriously Aelred: do you have DOWN WITH POLITICAL CORRECTNESS tattooed across your chest? If not, I think you should.

      Anyhoo, FWIW, I seem to see less young people smoking today than what I did when I was a young smoker in my teens. I remember (and I'm showing my age here) when Reality Bites came out at the cinema and for months afterwards, all we'd smoke were Camel Straights. They were truly awful...but we looked cool like Winona and Ethan. That was the whole point.

      I live in hope that this generation is a little smarter!

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      March 28, 2012, 11:21AM
    • Donna Joy

      No, I am not a fan of tattoos and your comment is ridiculous.

      All I am saying is that smoking really does indicate that one is a non-conformist these days, and all the PC stuff telling everyone to conform will inevitably encourage some to be non-conformist rebels, who are always cool.

      Do you really think plain packaging will stop smokers buying cigarettes or will they simply adapt and have packages of their own that they think are cooler than drab olive cardboard?

      I already have 4.

      Commenter
      Aelred
      Location
      Rievaulx
      Date and time
      March 28, 2012, 12:28PM
    • I disagree. I think of smokers as being highly conformist: they (usually) initially smoke to be part of their peer group or because their family smokes.

      As for plain packaging, well, smoking becomes an addiction after a while. I don't think plain packaging is enough to break that addiction. But it would give room to "personalise" your packaging, as you suggest.

      Re: your cigarette cases. Apparently antique smoking paraphenalia, for example, does not earn as much as it once did, given the PC around smoking nowdays ;) So maybe I am beginning to understand your inherent distaste of PC: some of those old art deco and art nouveau cases are truly exquisite!

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      March 28, 2012, 2:18PM
    • Donna Joy,

      I guess it depends on what you are conforming to. I had peer-pressure to get tattoos and piercings, which I resisted.

      I also recall being told what a paranoid idiot I was for saying some years ago that it wouldn't be long before an Aussie couldn't have a beer and smoke in a pub after work.

      Now that smokers are forced out onto the streets at all hours and bumping into each other while in a bad mood, and I have effectively been banned from a social life, why would packaging rules impress me?

      Sometimes I feel that, for all the harm it does to me, I'm not going to let the PC crowd make me conform. Doesn't make me cool, just an obstinant idiot.

      But I do think the PC crowd forcing their views upon me and my life and that of my friends is unwelcome and something to be resisted, somehow.

      Social engineering of human beings who resent it sometimes make it known through individual, often destructive choices. Self-harm is common amongst the powerless.

      Commenter
      Aelred
      Location
      Reivaulx
      Date and time
      March 28, 2012, 3:00PM
    • Lol. I see obstinance as more of a positive trait, so I wouldn't say you're an idiot at all for sticking to your guns.

      I remember my good friend who works in disability services saying that the thing that is common amongst all humans, even those people who are severely brain damaged, is our positive response to choice. When humans are given no choices, we suffer. No one likes other's views forced upon them.

      I believe you are intelligent enough to make your own decision. And even though I personally detest smoking (oh boy, nothing like a reformed smoker, eh?), I'd still defend your right to do it.

      And I know I'm being cheeky, but I stand by my tattoo remark!

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      March 28, 2012, 4:23PM

More comments

Comments are now closed