Thursday, November 13, 2008

Stop smoking - warnings

The man in the picture appears to be dying. He’s lying in a hospital bed, breathing through an oxygen mask and you just know he’s ready to kick the bucket any time now . . . because he’s a smoker. But, is he really sick, or is it just a little movie magic intended to frighten the kiddies into shunning the despicable and deadly demon weed. No - No. The other demon weed; tobacco.

You’ve all seen them; those ugly health warnings plastered over the front and back of cigarette packages. Twenty-three countries now have laws, or are about to implement laws, forcing tobacco companies to display graphic warnings on their cigarette packages.

The picture in question (the man about to expire from some unnamed smoking related illness) appears on a pack of Egyptian smokes, and it’s sparked a lawsuit in that country. The man, Hamdy Balala, is apparently not sick. So, Khaled Shaaban, a lawyer, is suing the Egyptian Minister of Health for trickery, claiming the posed picture has duped and frightened the public.

I guess Mr. Shaaban doesn’t quite grasp the concept of the warnings. Obviously, he didn’t get the memo explaining the intention of the picture was to disgust and strike fear in your typical smoker. Egypt has one of the highest smoking prevalence rates (60% among males) in the world. They obviously have to be subjected to a lot of fear and disgust to keep the anti-smoker brigade happy.

Balala, who posed for the picture, is actually a very healthy, heavy smoker. His picture appeared on Facebook recently, puffing passionately on a fag while holding up a cigarette pack with the picture of him on his death bed. It was the Facebook picture which prompted Shaaban to launch the lawsuit and demand the resignation of the Health Minister.

Says Shaaban: “If he deceived the public then he will never be credible, and he will never gain the public’s trust in any of his actions.” The man does not get out enough. Anti-smoker fanatics have never had all that much credibility in some quarters.

Regardless, the latest research shows that smokers seldom pay any attention to the warnings. In fact, after the novelty wears off and the kids have collected the full set, they become something of a joke.

Indeed, some research has found that the warnings have an opposite affect than that which was intended. They prompt a desire to smoke. Danish marketing authority, Martin Lindstrøm, surveyed several thousand smokers and found that they associated the warnings with pleasure. Every time a smoker pulls out a pack, the warning is associated with something pleasant that is about to happen. Smoking.

Just for laughs, I asked a few smoking friends what they thought of the health warnings.

“Marie, do you know what the warning on your cigarette pack says?” I asked one.

“What?” she stammered, unaware I was taking a poll. “How in bloody hell am I supposed to know?” She asked, reaching into her purse. “Something about smoking being bad for me.”

“Every year the equivalent of a small city dies from tobacco use.” She recited. Then, putting on her glasses so as to better read the fine print: “Is that 45,000 Canadians who’ll die from smoking? I think there might be three or four different warnings.”

Another friend responded: “I don’t know, I never look at them. How many? I don’t know. I think I might have seen at least half a dozen.”

Actually, there are 16 different graphic warnings randomly placed on each and every pack of cigarettes sold in Canada. Some of them even give honest, verifiable facts. I’ve got all 16 in my collection and I can’t wait to add the new ones Health Canada will be introducing next year.

But, the fact that the graphic warnings are no longer having any impact on smokers has not escaped the attention of anti-smoker crusaders.

In Canada, the government is being pressured to make the graphics bigger, better and even more pornographic than those already being used. The zealots are demanding warnings similar to those in use in Australia, which cover three-quarters of the front and half the back of the pack with the most disgusting imagery they can find.

Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada claim that size matters. “Effectiveness of warning labels has been shown to increase with the size of the warnings. The bigger they are, the more likely they are to be noticed and read by the smoker.” Uh-huh.

Hey, wait a minute. Why didn’t I think of this before? There may be a decent marketing opportunity here. What if we take those health warnings from around the world and turn them into a series of collector cards. Maybe Topps would be interested.

People wouldn’t have to go rooting around in the garbage for empty cigarette packages to fill out their collection. They could have a nice clean picture card with a nice fresh bubble gum smell. And, while the money's rolling in, we’d be doing a public service; scaring the bejeezers out of the kids.

I wonder who owns the copyright to those things.

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