Saturday, July 12, 2008
Anti-Smoking hysteria reaches new heights
This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.
Complaints to the BBC after Top Gear presenters lit up pipes containing herbal tobacco in a light-hearted RAF parody scene. A pub stormed by riot police after a customer refused to put out a cigarette. A threatening letter and a £75 fine sent by a local council to a woman who had dropped a cigarette butt.
Thought the current wave of anti-smoking hysteria sweeping Britain couldn't get any sillier? Then think again. At the BMA's annual conference earlier this week, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the organisation's head of science and ethics, urged film censors to give "pro-smoking" films an 18 certificate. Dr Nathanson cited the film Independence Day, in which hero Will Smith celebrates victory against aliens by lighting up a cigar as an example of a pro-smoking film. And if smoking has to be portrayed on our TV screens, Dr Nathanson would like to see storylines being developed that show the damaging consequences.
If Dr Nathanson and the BMA get their way – and in the present tobaccophobic climate it is a reasonable bet that they will – a classic children's film such as 101 Dalmatians would need an 18 certificate all on account of Cruella de Vil's penchant for puffing on her cigarette holder. And smoking soap characters would have to be shown going through the agonies of emphysema/lung cancer/bronchitis and all the other dreadful illnesses which smoking can cause, just so viewers don't get the wrong idea.
We live in a society in which we are bombarded with images of violence at the cinema, on television and on our computer screens, and yet Dr Nathanson thinks the biggest problem is Will Smith lighting a cigar. Never mind the number of violent deaths in Independence Day; it's the celebratory cigar that causes the offence.
In truth, Dr Nathanson doesn't have too much to worry about: film and TV programme makers are already bending over backwards to appease the anti-smoking lobby. Ian Fleming's James Bond is a 60-a-day man (Balkan and Turkish with three gold bands on the filter), but in the latest Bond film, Casino Royale, 007 is a smoke-free paragon – a man fully in tune with the rather strange morals of the first decade of the 21st century. "I can blow off someone's head at close range and splatter blood, but I can't light a good Cuban cigar," says the film's star, Daniel Craig. In the 2004 film version of Thunderbirds, that hitherto most stylish of smokers, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, was deprived of her trademark cigarette holder. And in last year's BBC production of Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous detective was, for the first time, sans pipe.
How different things were 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, even the contestants on University Challenge were allowed to smoke. In Joan Bakewell's famous Late Night Line Up interview with Harold Pinter, both interviewer and interviewee smoked freely; today they'd both face fines and censure.
No one is disputing that smoking constitutes a health risk. But a society that gets into more of a strop over fictional characters puffing on pipes, cigars and cigarette holders than people blasting each other to kingdom come, is surely one which has lost all sense of perspective.