Art and tobacco

By November 7, 2012Health, Politics, Society

I am a reformed smoker (from 18 to 26), and like others of my tribe I hate people smoking near me. It doesn’t happen much any more in Australia, because smoking has become one of those things that you don’t do near others, or anywhere where its effects can be smelled later. So hotel bedrooms, taxis and pubs are mercifully free of the stale smoke which once characterised them.

Why did I smoke at all? My parents didn’t, and of my relatives only one did, my mother’s father. Well, it was a badge of leaving childhood, and there was a ration, as well. If you put your name down you were entitled to a packet a day — for purchase, that is. I don’t think I really enjoyed it, but it wasn’t long before I was addicted. I managed to get out of it early, when the more powerful desire to do well in sport took me off cigarettes and alcohol for six months while I prepared for an event. The beer at the end of that period was delicious, but the cigarette made me cough and choke, and I was free of nicotine, with no desire to smoke again.

The move against smoking grew and grew. See an American film of the 1950s, set in contemporary USA: the actors sometimes almost chain-smoke. Today such behaviour seems extraordinary. Slowly people quit, as health warnings grew. In the early 1980s the feeling against smoking in the presence of others reached the point where it was proposed that our Faculty meetings at the ANU be smoke-free. It was the late Peter Wilenski who moved the motion, and his fellow professor, the late Eugene Kamenka, who seemed to smoke all the time, said firmly that if the motion was carried he would not attend any faculty meetings. It was carried, and he stayed away.

Today smoking is generally regarded as anti-social, and we are back in something like the mid-Victorian period, where gentlemen could smoke in polite company, if at all, only when the ladies withdrew after dinner. But the young are still attracted to it as a badge of adulthood, and girls seem to believe that it is an appetite-depressant that will keep them thin. Cigarettes are now taxed almost out of existence (they were cheap when I was young) — but now there is much more money about. The plain-packaging laws that have survived a High Court challenge will reduce the attractiveness of the packets, and will probably reduce still further the buying and smoking of cigarettes. But the ‘gasper’ will go on, I think.

All this is by way of introduction to another website, one set up by Fay Thomson, who was a fellow student of mine at high school. Her father became addicted to tobacco as a soldier in the First World War, when tobacco was part of a soldier’s ration. He died from emphysema, which is not one of the nicer ways to go. Fay decided to channel her pain and anger at the  death of her father into employing art in the service of a crusade against the weed.

She established an annual competition a few years ago, and this year’s produced 157 entries, some brilliant, some quirky, some saddening. If all this has been a part of your life too, go to the site and check it out. The chief judge, Des Crawley, also had tobacco in his life, to the detriment of those he loved. I was struck by a remark he made in his judge’s report:

‘Art and artists have a responsibility to question, to pose and confront the real and ordinary world with questions, with what ifs, with why is it so and thus challenge prevailing sensibilities. There is little that I can see that is positive about the tobacco industry. It is a relic of another era and the sooner it is toppled the better.’

I agree, and I like this way of doing it. Banning things that people want to do to themselves, even if they are potentially or actually harmful, as I have argued before, is the wrong way to go. Tax it, yes. Poke fun at it, yes. Educate against it, yes. Bring the resources of art, so often used to make things attractive to us, to have the opposite effect, yes indeed!

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