Originally published in
The Big Issue
,
July 2004
2003 wasn’t a good year for tobacco giants in the UK. In January, the EU tobacco product directive came into force, requiring manufacturers to accept new, larger health warnings on all cigarette packets. Fourteen new messages such as ‘Smoking can cause a slow and painful death’ now have to be displayed in black and white and cover at least 30% of the front of the pack and 40% of the back. In February, the first phase of the Tobacco Advertising Act was implemented, bringing an end to billboards, print, direct mail and Internet advertising. In October the first British tobacco litigation case reached the courts in Edinburgh, and in December the website www.tobaccopapers.com was launched by the Centre For Tobacco Control Research, which publishing internal documents behind tobacco ad campaigns. One notorious Gallagher (the makers of Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut) memo described some of their customers as ‘slobs’ who are ‘particularly found in Scotland and the Midlands’. Smooth.
About 15 billion cigarettes are bought daily around the world – that’s 10 million every minute.

It’s a similar sob story further a field. New York, Boston and Norway all banned smoking in public places last year while Canada leads the world in tobacco legislation. Not only do stark warnings such as ‘Each year, the equivalent of a small city dies from tobacco use’ take up 50% of the packet, it was also the first country in 2001 to introduce full colour pictures. It takes a brave smoker to light up a fag from a case covered in a diseased mouth, tumour-riddled lung, a brain after a stroke or a damaged heart. And to accompany the sharp message ‘Cigarettes may cause sexual impotence due to decreased blood flow to the penis’ there’s a photo of – wait for it - a limp cigarette. Australia and Brazil have since followed suit.

All this is far cry from the golden age of cigarette advertising. Lucky Strike targeted women in the twenties with the slogan ‘Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet’. Phillip Morris promised ‘Smoke for pleasure today. No cigarette hangover tomorrow’ in the Fifties. John Wayne appeared in Camel ads, swaggering out the lines: “Mild and good-tasting pack after pack. And I know, I’ve been smokin’ ‘em for twenty years.” He died of cancer 20 years later. And believe it or not, early episodes of ‘The Flintstones’ in 1960 saw Fred and Wilmer puffing away on their Winstons. These days, brands can’t even use descriptions such as ‘mild’ or ‘light’ thanks to EU directives.

Tobacco companies need not fear too greatly though. About 15 billion cigarettes are still bought daily around the world – that’s 10 million every minute. And as smoking rates shrink in high-income countries such as the UK, North America and Australia, consumption is rising in developing nations, East Asia and the Pacific at the rate of 3.4% per annum, so say the World Health Organisation (WHO). China is the world’s largest tobacco producer and consumer with 350 million smokers (90 % of men and 10% of women). At the moment, one simple sentence ‘Smoking hurts your health’ appears on packets. Similarly, Japan hasn’t revised its tobacco advise since 1990. Vending machines on every street sell over 70 brands for less than £2 with polite health labels that read: ‘Try not to smoke too much as there is a risk that it might damage your health. And be sure to observe smokers' etiquette.’ The government has always opposed moves by the WHO to ban advertising and only begun re-considering its laws this January. The silence is easily explained. Japan Tobacco, the world’s third largest cigarette producer (behind Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco) is 67% state owned. This, combined with the region’s economic boom and increasing number of female smokers (the pastime was morally frowned upon during the cultural revolution) makes East Asia a key target for the tobacco business hunting for new markets to replace ones being extinguished elsewhere. With the notable exception of Thailand and Singapore, it’s also easy to market to teenagers with brands like Rave and DJ Mix, which come in cherry, lemon and strawberry flavours.

In Africa it’s a similar story. Many states require no health warnings whatsoever and the tar levels are significantly higher than those sold in the Europe. With the economies of countries like Malawi and Zimbabwe depending on tobacco exports, big business can wield mighty power over them with the offer of jobs, revenue and aid. Advertising goes mainly unchecked also so that companies can get away with pushing the aspirationally-named brands such as Diplomat ( Ghana), High Society ( Nigeria) and Sportsman ( Kenya).

The stance against smoking is as old as the product itself of course. Columbus introduced tobacco to Europe from the New World in 1492. The crop soon spread with medics throughout the 16 th Century touting it as a cure for everything from halitosis and lockjaw to cancer. King James I was the first to warn of its dangers, saying smoking was “hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs” and swiftly imposed a heavy tax on it in 1604. But it wasn’t until after World War II that the real health debate took shape. The US was the first country to introduce Surgeon General warnings on cigarettes in 1965.

Legislation has slowly but surely escalated ever since, but even in today’s harsh anti-smoking climate, the UK still has 13 million smokers, 120,000 of which die each year from their habit. And with 1.25billion of us puffing away worldwide, the industry still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve to get past those pesky anti-smoking laws. Now, only 10% of advertising expenditure goes into conventional publicity while more than half is ploughed into gimmick such as lighters, t-shirts and bar promotions. By sponsorship sporting events, namely Formula One racing, tobacco conglomerates also get their logos splashed across daytime TV. Hong Ta, China’s largest tobacco company sponsored Real Madrid’s tour of the country last summer and although the World Cup was declared a tobacco-free zone by FIFA, BAT still managed to secure permission to use David Beckham and Michael Owen on Malaysian TV to promote Dunhill before the ban came into being.

So as National No Smoking Day looms on March 10 and a nation once more reaches for the nicotine patches, consider this: you might not be able to do anything about the heavy tobacco taxes imposed by Her Majesty but you can always cover up those nasty health warnings with a spoof sticker from fakefags.co.uk. Nobody likes a quitter, right?

Journalism