Revoltingly Misguided Anti-Smoking Commercials

I use to smoke. I was good at it.

It never occurred to me to think that smoking wasn’t bad for my health. I could never understand smokers who insisted that they were duped by the cigarette industry. Smoking causes cancer. At best, it destroys your body inside and out.

I started smoking at thirteen but not because I thought Camel Joe was cool. If cartoon mascots actually worked on children, then there’d be an epidemic of children buying MetLife insurance. I started to smoke because Albert Camus made it look beautiful, and I was entering an insufferable teenage phase.

The classic Albert Camus pic

I stopped smoking because it was hurting those around me, because it was making me sick, and because it was prohibitively expensive. I like having all my teeth and not having them corn yellow. I like having my skin, my largest organ, not withered and aged. For me, smoking was something done out of boredom, to fill the hours, and it was never something that I made a place for a regular event. When I realized that smoking was dictating my behavior, I accepted the fact that I had to quit. Not just stop or pause, actually quit once and for all. But it was the fact that smoking was doing damage to those I loved around me that finally pushed me to quit.

Too many of my friends have had cancer. They’ve survived it. I admire their ability to stay who they were through such a horrific experience. It’s humbling. Knowing what they endured, insisting on smoking is a dick move. It’s not just rude, it’s immoral.

But I’ve come to truly loathe the anti-tobacco industry as much as the tobacco industry. Anti-tobacco demonizing partakes in the exact same type of dirty progandizing the tobacco industry deploys to hock its product. The zealotry behind many and most antismokers combines the cultishness of CrossFit, the unfounded moral superiority of veganism, and the good old class/race politics of privilege.

Antitabagists, unlike prohibitioners, are in the right. But too often the message is framed in the wrong. There are two examples that I have in mind that repulse me and nearly make me want to start smoking again out of spite. These are commercial parodies that look to equate smoking’s deleterious effects with physical and mental abuse. I can’t imagine a more distasteful and repugnant maneuver.

There’s this take on abusive teenage relationships. Dating abuse is real. In fact, it’s often a precursor to date rape and domestic violence. Equating cigarette smoking with this diminishes the seriousness of dating abuse. Unlike smoking, being abused isn’t a choice, it is something done to you. Suggesting cigarette smoking is something inflicted on a person, I find suspect.

An ad like this is unintentionally misogynist because it trivializes a very real threat to all girls. It’s not the only creepy and more than casually misogynist PSA that ‘The Real Cost’ offers up. There is the cringe inducing purity pledge ad spoofing daddy/daughter purity balls.

Pretending to be about morality and strengthening of father/daughter relationships, purity pledges reaffirm paternal control and ownership over girls. Equating cigarettes with this clearly misogynistic practice certainly succeeds in painting smoking as a horrid practice (and by proxy those who would make and sell them).

Yet like the teen dating abuse parody, this ad diminishes the damage done by purity pledges to preteen and teenage girls. Instead of interrogating the damaging practice of purity pledges, how it corrupts sexuality and denies agency, it takes them for granted existing as yet another obstacle to be navigated by teenage girls. The onus is on the girl to not let herself be ensnared by smoking in the same way she has been or will be by purity pledges. To my mind, this is a variation on victim blaming. 

This PSAs aren’t run too often any more, anti-tobacco groups are more comfortable with the ‘look how gross’ smoking is or ‘look at all the chemicals’ in cigarettes tactics. These groups are also shifting to challenge e-cigarettes or vapor smoking and hookah smoking. I couldn’t care less. I’d rather see them challenge the fast food industry rather than beat a deadhorse. Or, at least, shift efforts at ending smoking by taking on overseas perceptions of smoking to truly cripple the industry.

These two ads I find revoltingly misguided because they substitute a minor threat for a major one denigrating the more common and more damaging issue.

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