The Canadian Press reported yesterday that Ottawa approved "bold" new labeling for cigarette packs. These images, that will cover up 75 per cent of the packaging will depict graphic images of cancer-infected mouths, and "an emaciated, cancer-stricken Barb Tarbox," a well-known anti-smoking activist from Edmonton, Alberta who died of lung and brain cancer at the age of 42.
Now, anti-smoking lobbyists are jumping in the air claiming this to be a huge victory for them. But officials from the tobacco companies, rather than run around trying to fight this, are sitting with their arms crossed, as if asking "so what?" According to the Canadian Press, they claim this new campaign won't do much to deter people from smoking as the greater public already knows the harms of smoking.
And I agree with them.
Frankly, I think that a new type of picture, whether of an infected mouth, or anything else, won't do anything to deter current smokers. Call them what you want, but smokers are resolved, stubborn, and yes, maybe even stupid; but you can't stop them with an ugly picture or two of a collapsed lung. In the same way that some alcoholics exist according to the rules of Jimmy Tomorrow's "Tomorrow Movement" (i.e. I'll do it tomorrow, I'll sober up tomorrow, I'll go to work tomorrow; just one more drink) in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, some smokers exist according to the regulations of the "It Won't Happen to Me Movement," which convinces them that they will be the exception to the rule; they won't get cancer, they won't get infected, they'll be the one at the party saying he got more out of cigarettes than cigarettes got out of him. But then again, this trait isn't exclusive to only smokers, but also to every rational human being who doesn't want to face facts.
Ottawa seems to think that by using shocking images, people will be deterred from smoking. But what the government fails to notice, and tobacco companies do, is that while these "graphic" images will at first be shocking, and disgusting, their effect will probably diminish over time. Ask a smoker today if he can remember what anti-smoking picture adorns the pack he's carrying in his pocket. When these pictures were first placed onto packaging, I'm sure he would be able to tell you; they were new, unique, a novelty, almost something to be collected like baseball cards. However, as with all things, as time goes on, the effect is lessened. Give it a few months, and these pictures will be as non-descript as the gray packaging for Podium cigarettes.
Now, another hopeful effect of this new branding will be to deter non-smokers from giving it a try. And I'm sure they will, to a certain extent. "To a certain extent," because as character BR in Thank You For Smoking says "they're cool, available and 'addictive.' The job is almost done for us." And the character's right. For every Barb Tarbox, there is a James Dean. For every poor adolescent undergoing chemotherapy, losing his hair to treatment, there's a gritty Sean Connery James Bond saving the world yet again, with a full head of hair, and a cigarette in hand. For every death statistic, there is a hero, real or fictitious who has beaten the odds and has come out on top. While numbers show that smoking has hit an all-time low in Canada, there will always be that group of people willing to cross the threshold and try the forbidden, the taboo that tobacco seems to have become. It might not be as "cool" as it once seemed, but with smoking, the more it's frowned upon by society, the more appealing it will seem to more impressionable generations; it's just a law of human nature; that we want what we can't have. Anti-smoking lobbyists are shaking the boat a bit too much.
But credit is due to the Ottawa government for having picked Ms. Tarbox as their new poster child. It's taken them some time, but anti-smoking lobbyists seem to finally have realized that "one death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic," as said by Stalin, and by adding to the mythos of this fatefully-named cancer victim, the government is humanizing pain, hoping that it will break the "It Won't Happen To Me" mindset of some smokers. But as I said, while Ms. Tarbox will undergo a resurgence in "popularity" by being plastered onto every pack, her name, face, story will diminish into oblivion as time goes by, and people forget to notice her struggle on that pack of charcoal-filtered Belmont Lights that go oh-so well with a cup of coffee in the morning. Think about it this way, how many college students do you know who wear a Che Guevara t-shirt, and have no idea who he is, or what he's done?
Anti-smoking lobbyists may very well think they've won the battle because a victim will now adorn 75 per cent of every pack, but it's only a victory because they seem to be getting desperate. I mean, it must be pretty frustrating for these lobbyists when the biggest concern for tobacco companies isn't so much their detractors or protestors, as much as it a black market of contraband cigarettes that's cutting into their profits.
"The pack is the only way for us to communicate with the consumer," Eric Gagnon, spokesperson for Imperial Tobacco, told me over the phone, "But when we see such a huge increase in regulation on the packaging by the government on such a premium product, we may also see increase in consumers buying contraband cigarettes which, unlike their regulated counterparts, have no health warnings."
This shouldn't only be a problem for tobacco companies, but also for the Canadian government. It's completely counterintuitive to what their ideology of regulation stands for. Yet, the government seems to be taking its time.
"Now that these regulation announcements have been made," Mr. Gagnon continued, "we hope the Canadian government will once and for all put an end to the contraband issue which is undermining every single tobacco regulation right now. The health minister said she would deal with this in September 2010. It's time to make this a priority now."
But for the time being, with yesterday's announcement, I say let the government have its way with packaging; in a matter of months, they will make Barb Tarbox, her struggle, her pain, her death completely irrelevant, even invisible to smokers, and non-smokers alike. She'll simply become the non-descript norm, and people won't notice anymore.
Follow Daniel Alexandre Portoraro on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dportoraro