“A pack of blindness and a packet of infertility, please. Not the cancer or the heart attack ones, thank you.” Since this summer, Britons can no longer recognize cigarette brands from packaging, as Daniel Hunt reported for huffingtonpost.co.uk. No elaborate gold lettering. No friendly camels. No Marlboro Man—but several of the actors portraying him died of cancer or respiratory disease. Instead British cigarette packs carry graphic photographs of suffering humans or body parts in various stages of decay. A headline describes the specific damage that smoking can inflict on you as shown in the photo. Like baseball cards, perhaps people in England will collect cigarette packs each with a different health problem. Hey, I’ll swap you my clogged arteries for your brain cancer.
I’m not a smoker—it never appealed to me. At high school in Britain, I occasionally puffed at menthol cigarettes in a vain attempt to look sophisticated, but like Bill Clinton, I never inhaled. My mother would do the same thing, holding a Russian Black Sobranie at social events. James Bond, the epitome of upper-class British style, was a heavy smoker. I don’t mean the Daniel Craig movie version. The character depicted in the very first Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” written in 1953, is on his seventieth cigarette of the day by the end of the first chapter. A photo by Cecil Beaton of the author, Ian Fleming, shows him wearing a bow tie and smoking, a long cigarette holder in his mouth, resembling the elegant Bond character he has created.
My best friend Claire smoked a pack a day from fourteen onward and had a devil of a job quitting in her twenties. To celebrate, I gave her a cake shaped like a cigarette. Several college friends smoked. One brave chap ate the contents of a full ashtray for a £100 bet. A girl I knew smoked a pack a day to keep her weight down—she had a great figure. When I was growing up and going to university, smoking was still cool. Sending someone outside to have a cigarette would have been considered the height of bad manners. Now, having gone through two bouts of breast cancer, I’m grateful that I never cultivated the habit. These days, none of my friends smoke. If a man I wanted to date was a smoker, it would be a deal breaker.
I found out about the expanded health warnings on British cigarettes packs from an Australian physician visiting London. The good doctor’s cigarette packet seemed to be advertising a porn movie. It sported a photo of a naked man curled up on gray satin sheets. Then I read the slogan above the picture, “Smoking increases the risk of impotence.” Another packet of impotence had an equally cryptic picture reminding me of Rodin’s famous statue, “The Thinker.” A man with his chin in his hand is looking down quizzically, but the photo ends at his bare chest. Perhaps a wilting carrot would have conveyed the concept of erectile dysfunction more clearly. It made me remember a scene from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” An old British gentleman at the hotel visits a clinic to get ED drugs where his malady is very effectively illustrated by a poster showing a downward-curving cigarette, no naked penis required.
The Australian doc stepped outdoors for what he described as “a gasper.” I watched him take a cigarette from a new packet with the message, “Smokers’ children are more likely to start smoking.” It carried a photo of a baby smoking a cigarette through a pacifier—no ambiguity there, unlike images on the impotence packs. The doctor admitted that all four of his grown kids were smokers too and the irony wasn’t lost on him. Aged in his seventies, the man reckoned he was too old to give up a lifelong habit. He had already diagnosed himself with peripheral vascular disease and early stage kidney cancer, knowing that both conditions were caused by smoking. I’d never heard of peripheral vascular disease, but there it was on one of the cigarette packs, accompanied by a photo of rotting gangrenous feet. I’m glad to say that the doc’s feet looked perfectly normal.
When the doctor popped into a local supermarket in London to buy cigarettes, the packets were hidden behind locked sliding doors that carried health warnings in large letters. After the shop assistant unlocked the doors, I used my cell phone to photograph the packs behind them. I wanted to get a full list of all the ailments shown in glorious Technicolor upon them. For some reason this made the assistant jittery and he hurriedly closed the doors, saying that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. “Why?” I wondered. Were they describing state secrets? Could I be thrown into the Tower of London for disclosing that cigarettes cause lung cancer? Perhaps I might peddle the photos to children as some kind of zombie, rotting-flesh porn. “Cor blimey, look at these cancerous lungs, decaying mouths and dying hospital patients!”
Ironically, the gasper-loving doctor came from Australia, the first country in the world to impose unbranded packaging on tobacco companies. Since December 2012, all cigarettes in Australia have been sold in drab, logo-free packaging adorned with explicit photos of the health damage caused by smoking. The Guardian Health Editor Sarah Boseley reports that these packaging changes have already stopped 1000,000 people smoking in Australia and could drive 300,000 Britons to quit.
Australia’s radical restrictions on cigarette packaging came exactly 400 years after tobacco began to be grown as a cash crop—by settlers in the first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia in 1612. Despite the strong tobacco lobby, unbranded, zombie-porn packaging might be seen in the USA in the not-too-distant future.
Former BBC journalist C. J. Grace is the author of “Adulterer’s Wife: How to Thrive Whether You Stay or Not,” available on Amazon.com. She is currently writing “Hotel Chemo: Learning to Laugh through Breast Cancer and Infidelity.” To find out more about C. J., visit www.adultererswife.com.