Anti-smoking zealots should butt out
June 15, 2008
The campaign to erase smokers from view is an unhealthy obsession.
ACCORDING to the spokesman for the Australian Medical Association, Dr Doug Travis, extinguishing government funding to films, plays and other arts projects that normalises and glamorises smoking will curb a dirty habit that leads to death and disease.
Unfortunately, if this proposal was incorporated in the soon-to-be-released Victorian Government Tobacco Control Strategy earlier, films such as The Home Song Stories and Noise, the TV series Underbelly and the 2005 Melbourne Theatre Company production End of the Rainbow may not have got off the ground.
There is no doubt that smoking has been glamorised in the past. I, for instance, saw Humphrey Bogart as the coolest actor ever after watching him smoke throughout Casablanca. Would I have been better off if Bogart chewed on a toothpick instead of a cigarette? Would fans of the Western be less inclined to light up these days if Clint Eastwood chewed on gum instead of a cheroot in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?
Perhaps. But these are not the questions that governments of liberal democracies should be preoccupied with. The key issue here is whether authorities should interfere with artistic expression for the purpose of influencing public thought and behaviour. What if artistic representations were permitted to feature smoking on the condition that smokers were portrayed as villains, while decent and clean-living characters were depicted as non-smokers?
This proposal would probably pass the AMA’s criteria for arts funding – except when it comes to historical films and plays. To use one obvious example, Adolf Hitler was a non-smoker whereas Oskar Schindler was a chain smoker. Should the Government therefore deny arts funding to an artistic organisation on the basis of depicting Schindler in a positive light?
There is no doubt that the media do influence behaviour. Just light up in front of a child these days and wait for the child’s reaction? Who do you think is responsible for the look of horror on their face? The millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent each year on anti-smoking advertisements may have something to do with it.
An Australian-led study published in The American Journal of Public Health on Friday found that increased exposure to anti-smoking advertisements can significantly cut the smoking rate. In fact, negative television representations of smokers far outweigh the few glamorous images that persist on our screens today. When was the last time you saw a hero light a cigarette in a film?
Even Carrie Bradshaw’s cigarette smoking in the television series Sex and the City is conspicuously absent from the film version. The beautiful people in most films and television programs don’t smoke these days.
I would say there is a smaller percentage of people smoking on film than do in real life.
Now anti-smoking groups are pushing to ban smoking from beer gardens, balconies and street-front tables where food is served. It seems they do so not so much out of concern for the dangers associated with passive smoke, but rather out of an obsession with driving smokers out of public view.
As a moderate smoker, I don’t like images of lung cancer victims invading my lounge room via the television and warning me of my imminent death if I continue to smoke. Unlike other media products that may contain distressing content, I am not even afforded the opportunity to turn away before a diseased artery oozing with fat under a surgeon’s scalpel is flung in my face.
I am offended by such trauma as much as Carrie Bradshaw puffing on a Marlboro Light may offend non-smokers. But just because we don’t like these images does not mean that we are justified in calling for their abolition.
It could be argued that governments have the responsibility to protect the public against harm. Why, then, not place the message, “Warning: Exposure to arts products that feature smoking may harm your health” before the start of a film, play or television program that contains smoking.
It may be an overly cautious approach bordering on absurdity. Sadly, it appears to be the only means by which individual liberties can be protected at a time when anti-tobacco groups seek to portray all smokers as a menace to public health for doing nothing more than enjoying a legal product.
Chris Fotinopoulos teaches in a Melbourne secondary school.