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Cigarette packaging: an invitation to addiction

The health secretary’s campaign against tobacco advertising is more radical than it might at first appear

Editorial, Monday 16 April 2012 22.37 BST

“We are our choices,” said Jean-Paul Sartre. But in a culture saturated by advertising, how are our choices our own? In a recent broadside against the advertising industry, the graffiti artist Banksy insisted that advertisers “are taking the piss out of you every day” by encouraging in us a feeling of inadequacy that can only be met by purchasing the product they are promoting. “They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it.”

Banksy and Andrew Lansley may have little in common, but the health secretary’s campaign against cigarette advertising is more radical than may first appear. Yesterday the government began a consultation on forcing cigarette companies to sell fags in plain, unbranded packets. This follows the ban on larger shops displaying cigarettes behind the counter. All of which has generated a predictable cry of “nanny state” from the justice secretary, Ken Clarke: “I am surprised that people think that young boys and others take up smoking because they are attracted by the packet.” As well as being a former health secretary himself, Mr Clarke was also the deputy chairman of British American Tobacco. Enough said.

The case against smoking no longer needs to be made. Half of long-term smokers will die prematurely from their habit. Although the tobacco companies insist cigarette advertising is designed to generate brand loyalty and to increase market share, it is inconceivable that they do not also want to recruit new customers for their poisonous product. The super-cool Marlboro Man has been replaced by photographs of hospitalised patients with disgusting growths, but the look of a cigarette packet can still subtly suggest a longed-for sophistication. Banksy is right that our susceptibility to “lifestyle choice” advertising can make us vulnerable to sophistical techniques of manipulation. And when backed by the addictive qualities of nicotine, the libertarian case in favour of unrestricted advertising becomes an invitation to dependence, not freedom.

The only question is whether plain packaging would make matters worse. Naomi Klein’s No Logo made unbranded material counter-cultural. Unbranded fags could do the same, possibly feeling just a little bit too much like exciting contraband. Addiction to the dreaded weed may be chemical, but it’s also about the powerful cultural meanings that get associated with smoking. Disrupting these associations through further regulation is a worthwhile experiment. So why won’t the health secretary contemplate similar measures against the fast-food industry?

Cigarette packaging: an invitation to addiction | Editorial

This article was published on at 22.37 BST on Monday 16 April 2012. A version appeared on p30 of theMain section section of the Guardian on Tuesday 17 April 2012. It was last modified at 00.06 BST on Tuesday 17 April 2012.

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