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Plain packaging works and tobacco advertising kills

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(Image via @BigTobaccoLies)

With News Corp doing the tobacco industry's bidding to fight a rear-guard action against plain packaging, 1960's child David H talks about how pervasive tobacco advertising in Australia ensnared him and his long battle to escape its deathly grip.

As a child born in the sixties, I grew up exposed to the unrelenting advertisements telling me that smoking was such a great thing — all I had to do was choose the brand that reflected how I saw myself and I would be somehow complete.

Was I the rural cool cowboy type or a devil-may-care khaki clad adventurer, rewarding my jeep-driving-kayak-paddling self with a smoke? Maybe I was a sophisticated jet-setter travelling first class through the sky while laughing with my fashionable friends or, better still, a dinkum Aussie puffing on a smoke while sailing a boat on the harbour. 

So many choices, so many smoking personas to try out. What excitement for an Australian boy in a modest family who was not yet ten years old! All the things I could be — and all I had to do was smoke the right cigarette.

It was all so simple!

Advertising gurus that are selling you print space, radio or TV airtime will tell you that nothing beats the power of a well crafted advertisement for getting people to try your product.

On the other hand, an investigative journalist looking for an industry response to the growing uptake of cigarette smoking amongst minors in the 1970’s would be told that advertising is just the presentation of information and choices — nothing more – and how silly for anyone to think otherwise.

During my childhood, tobacco companies ruled the world.

They sponsored every major team sport, every form of motorsport, had swathes of billboards and padded the advertising accounts of every newspaper and magazine in the land. Tobacco was king and saturation advertising kept it that way.

If advertising had no effect, why would they bother?

The tobacco companies kicked and screamed when they were not allowed to advertise on television, then in team sport and motorsport. They kicked up an awful fuss when they were not allowed to feature people in their print ads. Now, with plain packaging, they cannot even have their fancy designs on show — and how they have wailed about that.

I believe these changes have been effective in reducing the number of people that smoke and so does big tobacco — otherwise they would not complain so much.

I tried a cigarette when I was about eight and was well and truly regular with my habit by ten, as were most of my friends — and we weren't even the cool kids! 

Our first taste was the conventional store bought, manufactured cigarette. We tried roll-your-owns, amidst much laughter — unsmokeable attempts at making a cigarette and childhood bonding. We made pipes from bamboo to try out various brands of pipe tobacco and when we did not have tobacco. We resorted to smoking basket-weaving cane and using dried leaves and/or grass clippings in rollie papers. When times were good and some extra summertime chores had netted some cash, we tried out every type of cigar we could afford.

Smoking was the thing to do, that much was obvious. Every cool person in film and television were either smoking on-screen or in their private time — as witnessed in photos for the glossy magazines and society pages of the newspapers.

The message was simple: if you're not smoking, you're just not part of the scene.

As pre-teens, we overcame the horrible taste of smoking to become part of “today” as it was then. I remember learning to do the draw-back with that very first cigarette — my head spun and I felt a little strange, then I felt a little unwell. It was not a very big step to move from the point of feeling ill from smoking to just getting the buzz from nicotine, combined with the fact that, as kids, we were not meant to be smoking — a double dose of intoxicating pleasure!

Cigarettes were not hard to obtain.

My parents did not smoke, but nearly everybody else had at least one parent that smoked and provided the opportunity for pilfering one or two. It was also possible for a child to purchase cigarettes at that time, without question from the shopkeeper or any legal ramification. I do remember asking once for a rather large cigar and the gent behind the counter asked who it was for. I said I was going to smoke it and we both laughed. He obviously thought I was having a joke, but I did get the cigar!

When I was twelve, my Dad became unwell and I was at home more to help Mum care for him. I did so for the next two years until his (non-smoking related) death. To this change of circumstance, I did not have the social time to engage in smoking and, as a consequence, I decided to quit smoking for the first time, at the tender age of twelve.

After finishing Year 10 at high school, I was fortunate enough to pick up some work in what, at that time, was a very depressed rural economy and did not continue my education. I became, at best, a social smoker and might have a cigarette when out with friends. A pack of 20 would last a long time and I would usually end up giving away what remained of a pack on the Sunday afternoon, swearing off them for good, only to purchase a pack the next Friday night! 

Very shortly after turning 17, I scored a better job (or so I thought) in a non-unionised workshop.

 To my horror, I discovered that the smokers had to leave the production area to have a cigarette. If you were caught in the smoking zone without a cigarette, the sack was effective immediately. If you did not smoke – and I had been off them for about three months – you were expected to continue working! Well, guess who took up smoking again in order to get a break?

After nine months in that job, I managed to score a position in a unionised workplace. The pay was better, the breaks were regular and, as a very committed smoker by that time, I was pleased to be able to smoke on the job! After being in the new job for about six months, I considered the possibility of giving up smoking and tried on and off to quit.

Lesson number one in how to turn a seemingly even-tempered person into a Jekkyl and Hyde — remove all nicotine and watch the fun begin.

Why would you willingly partake of a substance that causes you to exhibit signs of a psychiatric disorder when you stop taking it? All the more reason to keep taking it, in order to stay “normal” and not pull on the cranky-pants.

Even now, in my 50’s, if I go without food for more than four hours, I begin to feel a little edgy and the cave-man within starts to show, demanding calories. That, however, is nothing compared to the murderous rage I would feel after a few hours without a cigarette!

I gave up on giving up cold turkey — that did not work for me. The next step was tapering down from 40 a day. Over the next couple of years I reduced, went back up, reduced and stopped, I do not know how many times. Finding the method that worked for me was difficult — I had already discovered a few hundred different ways that giving up smoking did not work.

During the 1980’s, the dangers of passive smoking became a hot topic and many businesses introduced the policy of smoke-free workplaces.

Prior to the commencement of the workplace I was at going “smoke-free”, we had a half day seminar informing us of the ills of smoking and the dangers of second-hand smoke. There were about 15 of us jammed into a small room on-site as the presenter trotted out all the information we were used to hearing.

Then he produced a small device that measured particles in the air and invited one person to light up a smoke and blow it towards the machine. When that first puff of smoke went over the little machine, the needle went about half way and there was some beeping. We plebeians all oohed and ahhed accordingly.

Before we had even finished ahhing, the oldest dirtiest diesel powered machine on site roared past our door at full bellow, with smoke pouring through the door. The little machine lost its shit completely — the needle maxxed out and the beeper went into an apoplectic fit! Everyone, including the presenter laughed and, as expected, on the unspoken cue of group merriment, just like in the ads, we had all seen as children, we all pulled out a smoke and lit up. Our lives were complete.

In 1991, I started a new job and, for the first time ever, I lived close enough to where I worked to commute by bicycle.  The job was also quite physical, and my fitness improved remarkably. Now, I really wanted to give up smoking. Not just for myself, but with one baby in the house and the second on the way, I wanted to take ownership of what was mine — me, my body, my health, my future, my family’s future. And there it was — true motivation. For me, that was what beat nicotine.

To those about to quit, I salute you! To anyone reading this that is trying to give up, take heart. I can personally guarantee you that giving up smoking is the second hardest thing in the world to do.  

What is the hardest thing in the world to do, I hear you ask? That my friend, would be giving up masturbating — don’t even bother trying. I tried once and it was the worst morning of my life.

In seriousness, my story explains why plain packaging must stay — because if bright shiny packs didn't get kids hooked and keep them smoking, then cigarette companies wouldn't care about being stopped using them.

Read also the U.S. Surgeon General's 1988 report 'The Health Consequences of Smoking: Nicotine Addiction' and managing editor David Donovan's insider account 'How cigarette companies keep politicians hooked on tobacco'.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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