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Why plain packaging on cigarettes is pointless


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Certain events cause the heart to stop. I mean this in the colloquial and figurative sense, not the real and fatal.

My co-religionists of the death-giver's cult at least may know what I mean. It’s not dissimilar from the situation depicted in Auden’s prescient (and yet not prescient enough) On the Circuit.


Then the worst of all, the anxious thought,

Each time the plane begins to sink,

And the No Smoking sign comes on…


(And he goes on to mention drink… which I should be happy to write about but which finds no space here.)

The case in question: you’ve made your request to the shop steward and (to save time) deigned to pay up in advance, and force of habit compels you unthinkingly to pick up and pocket your reward. Only once you are outside, and ready with flame at hand, do you realise that the dozy mare behind the counter has furnished you with the Wrong F*cking Brand.

I have just had this experience. Or, rather, I thought I had. I asked and paid for my pack of Rothmans and found myself performing a rare triple-take when I saw in my hand a box, squat and black rather than the pleasant and elegant and (ironically) clean white and blue I had expected

I became momentarily convinced that I had been given some strange and hitherto unknown brand of death which I had neither asked nor wanted for. I had a mind to deliver a stern rebuke to my shopkeeper, until I noticed the name on the pack; Rothmans, after all.

The cause of this brief cardiac arrest is that my local shop has just taken its first delivery of the new ‘plain-packaged’ cigarettes, which our government last year decreed must become the norm. Shops have until May to sell the old, colourful packs and pouches; I can only assume that I have smoked my local shop out of their old stock well in advance of the deadline.

The new packaging is peculiarly uniform and uniformly peculiar. The law states that a minimum of 65% must be covered with health warnings, and these take the familiar form of graphic pictures - which illustrate any one of the various tragic illnesses or ailments you may inadvertently purchase along with your biffies - as well as bold, unimaginative text. “Smoking Kills – quit now.” “Smoking damages your teeth and gums.” “Smoking makes your tackle shrink.” That sort of thing.

Well, damn. But I didn’t know that! Still, my fondness for Orwell (himself fond of fags if not we fags) compels me to take every opportunity to cultivate “a power of facing unpleasant facts.”

The pictures themselves have changed since they were first imposed upon the old, branded packs. Certainly it will necessitate a change in the rules of the game I’ve long played; a mix of Top Trumps and stamp collecting. Perhaps the old pictures will become more valuable as a raft of new images replace them. That bloke with a fetching tumour but catastrophically bad facial hair – you know the one? – was always my favourite; I wonder if he now qualifies as an antiquated rarity? He won’t have died in vain.

It took a while to work out that the image adorning my new pack was a photograph of someone’s blackened rear-molar. The problem with molars is that they are quite often hard to reach – my dental records attest to this - let alone photograph properly. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me that a mouth was involved at all. It looked, at a cursory glance, like a mass of moist pinkness with some uncategorised white lumps. Something to see the gynaecologist about.

The remaining 35% of the packaging is black. Just black. And this combination will, it is said, immunise impressionable young minds against the allure of bad and expensive habits. And my word, but we must think of the children! For doctors, as Charles Calverley noted in his Ode to Tobacco, have said it:


How they who use fusees

All grow by slow degrees

Brainless as chimpanzees,

Meagre as lizards;

Go mad, and beat their wives;

Plunge (after shocking lives)

Razors and carving-knives

Into their gizards.


It’s a law which we’ve imported from Australia, which is an inversion of the established norm, where ‘plain packaging’ has been required since 2012.

I’m not much interested in statistics relating to its efficacy; “lies, damned lies and statistics” understates the dishonesty of statisticians and their employers. In Australia, numbers are the missiles and bullets in a war between the tobacco industry, which has deployed Philip Morris International and KPMG to show that ‘plain packaging’ increases the sales of cigarettes (both legal and illegal), and the Australian Bureau of Statistics which refutes the claims.

Neither is remarkable for the trust they deserve. The British Medical Journal joined the fray, claiming to have proof that ‘plain packaging’ increases the percentage of smokers who want to quit. (Of course, that was not the stated aim of the legislation, and seems illogical in any case. The only time I’ll buy a pack for its visage alone is if it happens to carry a health warning absent from my collection.) But Philip Morris International insists it has had no actual impact.

The Cancer Council of Victoria tried to stop an FOI request by British American Tobacco, who wanted to query a study, carried out by the Council, on children and smoking, on the grounds that the evil Team Tumour would use the information to target children they themselves had targeted for the original survey. (What on earth would that entail? A Tweenie rolling from a pack of Amber Leaf?)

So you see, it’s all quite silly. And, in this country, it seems to me to have been rendered pointless by another piece of legislation which forces shops to conceal their cigarettes behind barriers and sliding doors. That legislation seems not to have contained any provisions relating to the nature of the shutters themselves, though, because the vast majority I’ve seen have “Tobacco” or “Cigarettes” plastered on them in large, friendly letters.

So plain packaging can’t be intended to reduce uptake by decreasing awareness. More than once have I been walking out of a shop only to be reminded by the shutters-cum-advertisements that I need to stock up. If that is what’s intended, then there must surely be better ways of affecting the desired change.

And the old rule surely holds; the best way to get a kid to do something is to tell them it’s wrong. And the English have always maintained an admirable juvenility in the face of authority. King James I wrote of smoking, in 1604, that it is a “custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, daungerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.” We, to our enduring credit, stubbornly carried on in defiance of his royal sententiousness.

A good thing, too, for I’m inclined to believe that there is merit in the 18th Century notion that there is some interminable, intangible link between the blue haze and the poetic and literary arts, and achievement in general. Ross Chambers, the Aussie professor, even invented a term – le poéte fumeur – for a century’s-worth of poets (not the least of whom: Baudelaire, Cowper, Calverley) noted for their devotion to the leaf. Wilde had his gold-tipped fags (and many more besides); Orwell and Koestler fortified themselves against tyranny with scrapings of tobacco; Christopher Hitchens made a fine chimney of himself (known even to singe shower curtains on a bleary morning), and he noted that one of Marx’s chief complaints about Das Kapital was that it would “not even pay for the cigars I smoked writing it.” And President Kennedy took care to hoard the Havanas before placing an embargo on Havana.

Hitler, on the other hand, hated smoking almost as much as he hated The Booze.

(It’s not universally true, of course. The finest writer and poet I know does not smoke, and is capable of summoning the beautiful at least as readily as King James.)

So perhaps it’s best that we say and do nothing about it at all. Better yet, why don’t we cultivate the habit; make of it, as Wilde did, an occupation? We might, once youth has finally abandoned us, make it so embarrassingly normal that our successors deliberately avoid taking it up as a mark of rebellion. And if we happen to ferment our own aesthetic genius in the doing of it, what’s not to like?

It must be worth a go, don’t you think? It must surely stand a greater chance of success than the latest diktat from the bureaucrats and busy-bodies in Whitehall and the Department of Health.

Calverley’s ode concludes, and I conclude with him:


Confound such knavish tricks!

Yet I know five or six

Smokers who freely mix

Still with their neighbours;

Jones—(who, I’m glad to say,

Asked leave of Mrs. J.)—

Daily absorbs a clay

After his labours.


Cats may have had their goose

Cooked by tobacco-juice;

Still why deny its use

Thoughtfully taken?

We’re not as tabbies are:

Smith, take a fresh cigar!

Jones, the tobacco-jar!

Here’s to thee, Bacon!

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