Plain packaging is another measure that the government hopes will make smoking less attractive to young people. Jeremy Loadman wonders if it is introduced, will smoking overcome it.

For all the efforts of anti-smoking campaigners to marginalise smoking and dissuade young people from taking up the habit, they must realise that smoking’s connotations of seduction and power are arguably strengthened amongst certain groups the more it is driven into the margins.

In response to the ever increasing anti-smoking edict pressed by the state, some people will continue to ever more forcefully correlate the act of smoking with an epicurean vision of life, where pleasure is to be taken in the now while it is still there for the taking. Usually this philosophy is clumsily expressed through the lines, “well, everything gives you cancer these days,” or “we could get hit by a bus tomorrow couldn’t we.”

Everyone has been with the friend who insists on sitting outside on a freezing night so they can smoke. Suffice to say that as they light up another product of Big Tobacco in the bitter cold, it can be hard to see any link to Epicureanism. Though as inarticulate as the argument is often stated, the connotation of smoking with ‘living for the present’ is a clear attempt to make the smoker appear as some rugged individual. So if smoking is bound up in the complex psychology of individualism and outward appearance, where does plain packaging fit into it?

Well, it’s aimed at young people lured by pretty packets. Of course, plain packaging also makes health warnings on packets more prominent, but they are hardly inconspicuous as they are. No, this is a move to hit the brand identity of cigarettes, and extinguish their aesthetic qualities and any idealism they denote.

Though it is long since these packets featured undisturbed fake heraldic crests, and pictures of a beaming sun sitting in an azure sky, by dictating that all cigarettes packages will be the same shade of swamp green the government is not only arguing that smoking is unhealthy, it is trying to deem it unfashionable. It’s not really an issue where you expect to hear a government’s voice what’s fashionable and what’s not. It is a slippery issue and therefore a more fraught one. If smoking really isn’t cool, history says it’s a hard argument to prosecute.

While television shows and movies will always provide pictures of glamorous people lighting up, this is not to say that there aren’t many reasons why people smoke. But when considering answers to the question of why young people take it up in the first place, the issue of images must be at the top of the list.

There are many reasons why people smoke. But the question of why young people take it up in the first place is a less imponderable question.

With no real life issues demanding the apparent soothing qualities of a cigarette, it is the prospect of dabbling in adult pleasures, and affecting an adult look, which seduces many teenagers.

The look, and its connotations, that many smokers are seeking are widely seen as being born from Leo Burnett’s Marlboro Man, which first appeared in 1954.

In his 1996 essay for the New Yorker ‘Sifting the Ashes’ author Jonathan Franzen describes the Marlboro Man as possessing “just about every positive association a cigarette can carry…rugged individualism, masculine sexuality, escape from an urban modernity, strong flavours, the living of life intensely.”

Like alcohol, much of smoking’s appeal lies in its ability to act a social lubricant. Having a quiet little smoke a signal for meaningful discourse; asking for a light, akin to a flirtatious introduction. And then there is the association that smoking has with writers, artists and musicians – the cigarette acting as a means of channelling inspiration. So ingrained are these associations that any attempt to redefine smoking as uncool or unfashionable surely is a mammoth task.

Unfortunately for some, smoking is an activity which doesn’t so much define individuality as belonging to a group. The factory worker on smoko, the bored office worker standing in some cigarette butt filled alcove in a business park, the 16-year-old school kid determined to fit in. Some environments that are strongly defined by rigid definitions of masculinity and group behaviour will continue to exert their forces on people’s decision making. Surely this contributes to the disproportionate amounts of blue collar workers who smoke. In these environments, where the culture of smoking is so strong, it is hard to see what difference a plain cigarette packet will make in trying to persuade people to kick the habit.

In saying that, of course attempts to curb the uptake of smoking, which is responsible for 15,000 deaths in Australia each year, is to be applauded. While in previous years it would have been thought that any argument coming from the government in regards to what is and what is not cool would be hopeless, but recent history suggests otherwise.

In recent years the New South Wales Road Transport Authority (RTA) introduced a provocative ‘pinky’ campaign to try and combat the prevalence of hoon driving amongst P-platers. In these television adverts passengers in a car being driven recklessly smirk to each other and raise their little fingers, signalling that the driver must be compensating for his inadequacy in the tackle department to drive in such a fashion. While the campaign clearly has many differences from the plain packaging debate, it does mark a willingness by government to embark on campaigns that actively try to set a dominant discourse amongst young people.

The trouble for anti-smoking campaigns – unlike anti-hoon driver campaigns – is that whether or not you think smoking is stupid, the charms of smoking are not just a smoke screen; they can be rationalised. As Franzen writes, “The pleasure of carrying the drug, or surrendering to its imperatives and relaxing behind a veil of smoke, is thoroughly licentious.”

Who among us has looked at the Mad Men characters of Don Draper or Joan Holloway with cigarette in hand and not been seduced? Of course, this portrayal of smoking belongs to a bygone era which will never be again, but nonetheless, it is the best advert Big Tobacco has had in years.

As for the philosophical battle which surrounds the reasons for and against smoking, Franzen’s own experience of wrestling with the habit eloquently sums up the biggest challenge facing those who seek to prevent its uptake: “If longevity were the highest good that I could imagine, I might succeed right now in scaring myself into quitting. But to the fatalist who values the present more than the future, the nagging voice of conscience – of society, of family – becomes just another factor in the mental equilibrium that sustains the habit.”

To the chagrin of anti-smoking campaigners it’s this sort of eloquence that no doubt sustains the habit among others.

Jeremy Loadman is a freelance writer.