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Waiting to exhale


Ian Rose

Giving up is hard to do, but surely this is the year …

Illustration: Matt Davidson.

Illustration: Matt Davidson.

THE new year is here, which means the pressure's on to give up smoking, for good, again. I'm nearly there already, right down to two or three a day (other than those rare, blissful occasions that find me in my cups), so surely the front page of a brand new calendar, the chance of a clean slate, fresh horizons, and all of that, can give my paltry will power the boost it sorely needs? And if the start of a new year isn't enough to make me forswear the filthy weed, there's always this new packaging.

These days an encounter with a pack of cigarettes is a traumatising ordeal. Photographs of ruined foetuses and luridly gangrenous feet abound, on front and back, beneath blaring, capitalised messages that inform us that we will most assuredly die if we continue to smoke this shit. And then there is tragic Bryan, a flaxen-haired surfer-looking dude in the inset ''10 weeks earlier'' shot, but a skeletal wreck, destroyed by lung cancer in the image that dominates the foreground, the caption for which reads, ''Bryan died aged 34.'' Coming face to face with Bryan, before and after, is enough to put the most nicotine-crazed of smokers off their Marlboros, which may explain the recent re-emergence of the cigarette case as fashion accessory.

The avowed intention of the federal government in introducing the new packaging laws, which have now been in effect for one month, is to target the young, and scare them out of taking up the habit. This is a far cry from the years that followed Sir Walter Raleigh's introduction of tobacco into England, when apothecaries flogged the stuff, and children as young as three were administered regular pipefuls to ward off bronchial affliction. It's certainly a good thing that we've moved on from there, in the same way that we don't go in for bear-baiting or witch-burning so much any more (a list of outlawed pastimes to which I would gladly see added paintballing and karaoke). Only, taking a look at the clusters of wizened-looking teens who gather outside my local Metro station after school to furtively puff, splutter and expectorate, I'm not sure how effective the current campaign's aim has been.

Have the health authorities forgotten the twisted brutality and tar-black humour of adolescent badinage? And everyone knows that kids these days are ghouls, or why the interminable pop-cult vampire thing, for pity's sake? These new boxes, with their range of horror-show images emblazoned indiscriminately across all brands, might become collectable. Trade-offs of, say, three Camel ''gangrene'' for one rare Winston ''bloodied urinal'' could be rife throughout the parks, playgrounds and junk-food outlets of our land. Desperate, obsessive-compulsive set-completists will find themselves smoking faster, the more dedicated as many as three cigarettes at one time.

And then there is the design. With its ''drab dark brown'' background (the colour was originally described as ''olive'', until the Australian Olive Association got antsy) and the plain fonts of the various health warnings and messages of doom that frame the main photos, the box is a triumph of minimalism. In this light, my pack looks almost black. A bit sexy, even. Though not so much the close-up of the pustular mouth.

I get chatting to a group of fellow self-loathing (wannabe ex-) smokers outside my local bar, and one of them says he finds the act of buying smokes ''more macho'' since the new packaging came in. Others mutter darkly about Bryan's 10-week deterioration being too awful to be true, and how they've heard the government is covering up the fact that his death wasn't, in fact, even smoking-related, anyway. One or two complain that they just don't taste the same any more. This then is the coterie of conspiracy-theorising, intransigent whingers to which I'll be aligned, should I carry on in my habit. We were once the edgy crowd, rebels, Brando-esque outsiders. Now we're just a bunch of malodorous cranks.

And if we're pig-headed enough to go on smoking these things in the face of technicolour evidence of the many ways in which they mess us up, then maybe we'll be stupid enough to spend even more money on stickers designed to hide the nasty pictures and shrill warnings on the new boxes, stickers of good old honest, feel-good stuff, such as the Australian flag or a young woman's bikini-clad bottom. Anthony Do Rozario, general manager of cheeky Gold Coast company Box Wrap, certainly hopes we are. Meanwhile, the dastardly tobacco industry, stripped of its right to dazzle and seduce us with glamorous wrapping, is busy making friends with peer-advocacy and the wonderful world of social networking. Plus prices are going up again, aren't they?

Enough is enough. Come the first of January, I'll be hanging up my lighter, and cleaning out my lungs. For good, this time. Again.

Ian Rose is a freelance writer.

Twitter: @ian-rose

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