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Pictures of ill-health

Canada's gruesome anti-smoking images have become a fashion accessory among American youth.

Mary Kate Dubuss

Topics Politics

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As a Canadian transplant in America, I used to expect demands for maple syrup and John Candy memorabilia from friends and colleagues when I headed home for holidays. Instead, I am consistently inundated with requests to return with cartons of Canadian cigarettes.

Why? Some state a preference for the Virginia-grown tobacco and the shorter filters – but many young Americans seem particularly attracted by the outrageous warning labels that now grace the cigarette packs. Officially known as ‘graphic health warnings’, these include colour photographs of brain tumours, young men on respirators, and closeups of lungs that appear charred and poisoned by cancer. Less threatening – if scarcely less tasteful – are the pictures of pregnant women smoking, limp and ashy cigarettes warning of impotence, and scared-looking children.

What do smokers and non-smokers alike find humorous about grave afflictions such as heart disease and lung cancer? Nothing – except for the absurd hope harboured by Health Canada, the country’s federal health department, that these photographs will deter smokers from lighting up by scaring its citizens into putting the packets down. Presumably, they never imagined creating a whole new kitsch fashion among American youth.

The recent transformation of New York’s 13,000 bars, restaurants and nightclubs into a smoke-free zone brought attention to the increase in ever-tougher anti-smoking regulations (1). In some parts of Canada, such tough regulations have been in force for some time. Many bars that have tried to ban smoking have faced financial crisis. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, such anti-smoking measures have been blamed for a number of bars’ bankruptcy, and surviving bars now allow smoking after 9.00pm. In Ontario, whose anti-smoking laws are second in strictness only to British Columbia, if a bar derives over 40 percent of its income from food, smoking must be banned (2).

Prince Edward Island’s public anti smoking legislation comes into effect on 1 June 2003, and there are widely held predictions that most bar and restaurant owners will not add smoking rooms because of the building cost (3). But the likelihood is that those who choose to smoke will do so in alternative surroundings, just as they ignore the anti-smoking photographs on packets.

As New York legislators are now learning, strict anti-smoking regulations are not necessarily reinforced by business owners (4). Since many restaurateurs are reluctant to apply pressure to clients not to smoke, both Ontario and New York now have tobacco inspectors, which are similar to liquor license inspectors. The job description entails roving restaurants, nightclubs and other social venues fining establishments and patrons.

What has been the impact of these tough anti-smoking regulations, and ever-more gruesome photo campaigns on cigarette packets? Nobody really knows. Health Canada started the photo campaign in June 2000, while simultaneously increasing cigarette prices; and many Canadian smokers attribute quitting or cutting back their habit to the cost increase, still considering the pictures more of a joke than anything else.

Studies by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada claim that high taxes, reduced promotion and smoke-free public places are the keys to the consistent decrease of Canadian smokers (5). But there is a downward trend in smoking across the Western world, which is hard to pin down to any country’s or state’s particular regulation or health campaign. By January 2002, Canadian
cigarette smokers were at an all-time low. It seems rather perverse to keep increasing the anti-smoking propaganda as smoking levels are going down.

Health Canada has also claimed that the increase in the cost of cigarettes will target the youth demographic. But teenagers are notorious for spending their income on non-essentials. Smoking bans in bars have little effect on teenagers in Canada; legal drinking ages vary in provinces between 18 and 19, while many young smokers start at age 12. Most smoking is done at social gatherings or at home, not in bars.

Andrew Swift of Health Canada claimed that the photo campaign’s intention ‘is to discourage young people from smoking’ (6). And when Health Canada introduced the photographic warnings, Murray Kaiserman, director of research for the tobacco control program of Health Canada, claimed that there was ‘no way to ignore the message’ (7). But while there was little opposition to the introduction of the photo warnings, popular dissent was generally heard through mockery and avoidance, particularly on the part of young people.

Shopkeepers nationwide now had a new topic to chat with their customers about. Comments rang out across convenience store counters: ‘Don’t gimme the heart one, I think that’s gross!’ Or from the girls: ‘I’ll take impotence, at least I don’t have to worry about that.’ A trend started of saving cigarette boxes with less disturbing images to house the next pack, so that the gruesome organs and warnings could be more easily ignored. Some shops even sold decorative boxes to disguise cigarette packs.

Meanwhile, the Americans who enjoy their Northern neighbours’ attempts at cutting down their notoriously high-smoking population regard these federal tobacco regulations as kitsch, akin to a collectibles, farces, and obscure propaganda. Whatever the campaign is doing for smoking rates, you might wonder what it is doing for our national image.

Mary Kate Dubuss is an American university student currently studying in the UK.

(1) New York considers smoking ban, BBC News, 12 August 2002

(2) Banning the butt: Global anti-smoking efforts, CBC News Online, May 2001 (Updated December 2002)

(3) Montreal Gazette, 22 April 2003

(4) The Economist, 19-25 April 2003

(5) Public Policy and Smoking Cessation, Mark C Taylor, May 1999

(6) See the Health Canada website

(7) Washington Post, 6 October 2002

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Topics Politics

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