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Sunday Soapbox: there’s no smoke without a picture of a dying baby

For fans of responsible hedonism, the promise of impending death and impotence preached by tobacco packaging sticks in the throat. It’s also nonsense

Words by
Robin Swithinbank

Huffing and puffing

On passing through duty free the other day, I went to buy some cigars, a journey that in British airports now requires the uncomfortable act of entering into an area cordoned off like a perverts’ paradise. Children are not allowed, which, as anyone who has ever been a child knows, will only make them want to go in more.

Not that there’s much to get excited about inside. Where humidors were once rich in enticing Cuban ochres and oranges, these days they’re a sterile mono-palette of colourful language threatening you with certain death if you so much as lick a fag. I could be wrong, but the use of these messages seems to have intensified of late.

While I can’t say I’m against the campaign to fetter our intake of carcinogens – quite the opposite, in fact – I do object to being made to feel guilty for doing something I only ever do in moderation. I am not a smoker per se. I can’t stand cigarettes, and I don’t buy or smoke cigars, pipes or anything else with any regularity. I am exceptionally dull in that respect, and always have been.

“These messages don’t make the blindest bit of difference to my propensity for a post-prandial puff”

But I do enjoy the occasional smoke, particularly when on holiday, or when celebrating a moment with friends and fellow chompers. For a while now, that’s meant watching sunsets, cigar in hand, in the company of a box painted with a picture of a blackened mouth riddled with cancer and voiced by an absentee Orwellian bully.

Thing is, these messages don’t make the blindest bit of difference to my propensity for a post-prandial puff. Despite the urgency of the message daubed on the back, front and sides of the box of Romeo & Juliet cigars I purchased that day, I find it hard to believe that smoking will harm my unborn child. I’m pretty confident that I am unlikely to conceive any time soon, and I’m also perfectly happy with my portion of children – a definitive two.

What makes it all the more infuriating is that the defacing of these mini-pleasures is limited to smokes. Surely just as dangerous are my bottle of duty-free booze and my trio of Toblerones for a tenner? And what about that hairdryer from Dixons I might unwittingly drop in the bath while on holiday in Mozambique? That’ll kill me. And my unborn child. So where’s the picture of a dead white bloke with a beard in a bath, still clutching his Remington 3000?

If we’re going to label stogies as lethal, why aren’t we doing the same with fizzy drinks, crisps and KFC? Why is it that a box of Cohibas has to carry a picture of a screaming baby when a can of Coke doesn’t have a picture of a fat person stuck in an armchair on it? And why stop at stuff we ingest or inhale? We should put warnings on trainers and Lycra. Definitely Lycra. ‘Warning: may cause broken limbs, torn ligaments, heart attacks and embarrassing silhouettes.’

NHS England says it spends £16 billion a year on health issues caused by obesity. Alcohol Concern tracks harms caused by booze at £3.5 billion. Smoking? Public Health England says its NHS spends £2.6 billion on smoking-related illnesses.

So singling out tobacco doesn’t make any sense. It’s nonsense. And besides. Most of us know how to consume in moderation, and those who don’t won’t be stopped by doom-mongering slogans and dirty pictures. For the rest, those of us capable of exercising some degree of self-control, it’s punishment we don’t deserve. All too typical in our knee-jerk world.

Cigars

It’s time we started valuing our MPs properly

Owen Jones’s continuing cries for help neared breaking point last week when he delved deep into his empathy reserves and labelled Johnny Mercer MP a coward. ‘Brave Sir Johnny ran away’, he trilled from his Twitter throne, apparently forgetting that the former army captain is a veteran of three tours of Afghanistan. When I interviewed Mercer, I found him to be decent, committed to difficult, important matters such as mental health, diligent, and self-sacrificing. He told me he works a 70-hour week, has to base himself in London while his wife and two kids are back home in Plymouth, spends his Saturdays doing clinics for his constituents, gets Sunday mornings off, and then has to head back to Westminster on Sunday evenings, ready to go again on a Monday morning. Without meaning to be unkind, you can tell. Not that that’s the point. The point is he’s not alone. The life of an MP is brutal, relentless and unforgiving, and requires no small amount of courage. Our elected leaders are paid a modest wage for the levels of power and responsibility they carry and, in most cases, they’re in it because they want to make this country better. They might not always manage it, but some credit for trying. It’s not sexy to celebrate our MPs, but we should. Apart from anything else, people who feel valued tend to be better at their jobs.

Cigars

The importance of wonder

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that much of our current malaise can be explained not simply by Brexit, Putin and the gender pay gap, but by our collective loss of wonder. I was in Barcelona last week and stepped inside the Sagrada Familia for the first time. Looking up into the bewildering chasm of Gaudi’s bonkers temple the word ‘wow’ fell spontaneously from my lips. Just as unfamiliar as the experience of trying to take in the soaring, tendrilled pillars, the impossibly ambitious stained glass and the strangled beauty of endless floating walkways and galleries was the sensation of wonder itself. ‘You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down,’ Charlie Chaplain once said. I came home intent on seeing more wonder. Trouble is, Gaudi sets the bar high. Little is likely to come close to seeing his masterpiece for the first time.