Yes, I started smoking when I was eight years old.
As a future yoga teacher, it’s not as if I didn’t know that smoking was bad for you, it’s just that I grew up in Spain, where smoking is so endemic that not too long ago they had an anti-smoking campaign aimed at doctors so they could quit and have the moral authority to advise their patients to do the same. Anyway, one day in my tender childhood, my best friend and I found a still-lit, still unfinished cigarette smoldering in the dirt. We picked it up and took turns smoking it. How very appealing, right? Well, from a health standpoint, sharing a cigarette that’s been on the ground is nothing compared to what’s actually in a cigarette, so if smoking didn’t kill me, neither did the germs in the cigarette butt. And the fact was, once I started, as a crafty and resourceful eight-year-old (the part about tender childhood was a lie), I had no difficulty finding sources of unused cigarettes, even if that involved stealing a couple here and there from a visiting older cousin’s stash.
I don’t remember if cigarette boxes had warning labels in those days; if they did, they obviously failed to make an impression on me. Maybe they were as inane as this one, which seems to be the most common warning I’ve come across through the years:
Now, if you’re a male, how effective a deterrent is that? Or if you’re a female and not planning on getting pregnant? Wouldn’t your reaction be “Hell, this doesn’t apply to me! I can smoke all I want!” Or the other very common one, “Cigarette smoke contains carbon dioxide.” Don’t you feel like exclaiming, “Yeah? So?”
I can’t say whether I would’ve quit smoking (or never started) had there been more memorable labels, but a couple of months ago I was visiting Portugal, and started taking photos of warning labels that, had I seen them as a kid, would’ve most likely have prevented me from starting.
Take this one, for instance:
It reads, “Protect children: don’t force them to breathe your smoke.”
I’d like to have shown that to the smokers in the Spain of those days. Bars, restaurants, parks, homes – everywhere you went there was no dearth of smoke or kids inhaling it. Even before studies came out on the effects of second-hand smoke, I don’t think it took a genius to figure out that a room full of smoke isn’t exactly pristine mountain air. The coughing is a big clue, really.
It’s a message that’s emphasized in this other warning:
“Smoking severely harms your health and the health of those around you.”
US warning labels are tiny, a fact no doubt reflecting the bullying power of tobacco companies and the reluctance of lawmakers to resist them and do what is right. By contrast, check the size of this label relative to the box:
“Smoking causes a high level of addiction. Don’t start smoking.”
That size label does really grab you by the throat, if you’ll pardon the pun. Even if it seems a little strange to find it in a box of smokes that you bought… since if you’re buying it, my guess is that it’s kind of late not to start smoking.
And, I have to say, the following reads more like a chemistry textbook than a warning label:
“Cigarette smoke contains benzene, nitrosamines, formaldehyde, and hydrogen cyanide.”
Excuse me while I pull out my eleventh-grade chemistry notes to figure out what nitrosamines are and why I should care. And is hydrogen cyanide the same thing as plain old cyanide? Or is it a kinder, gentler thing?
Other labels are a little more compelling. I know they would’ve lowered my chances of smoking:
“Smoking blocks arteries and provokes strokes and heart attacks.” Hm. I dare say that cool, suave, sexy guy blowing some smoke doesn’t look so cool, suave and sexy if the right side of his body is paralyzed post-stroke.
Or how about:
“Smokers die prematurely.”
Definitely in the “not mincing our words” category. Or, better yet:
“Smoking can cause a slow and painful death.”
Wow. Images of Mafiosi saying, “Ya shouldn’ta had that smoke, Vinny. Ya pissed off the boss. We gonna make ya die a slow, painful death.”
Of course, then there’s the atom bomb of messages –
It’s interesting in that you’d assume that with something as damning as that, people would just not buy the box. Or maybe say, “Hey, can you give me the box to the left instead, the one that says, ‘Cigarette smoke contains cyanide?’ I like that one better.”
Alas, a study was done that suggests that “Smoking kills” is a message that actually backfires in terms of effectiveness – maybe because when you’re young and stupid, death is a pretty remote concept, so it doesn’t mean anything to you.
On the other hand, here’s something you do care about when you’re young and stupid (or mature and wise): impotence. There’s nothing sexy about that. So this may in fact be the best visual
Yet, perhaps the most compassionate label is one that doesn’t get in your face about the harm of smoking, and just aims to be helpful:
“Your doctor or your pharmacist can help you stop smoking.”
As for me, I’m lucky to report that my career as a young, impressionable smoker came to a quick end two weeks after my taking up the vice: not only did I hate getting (my own) smoke in my eyes, but more importantly, after two weeks of coming home to my staunchly nonsmoking father, I started to run out of plausible lies as to why my clothes smelled like tobacco.
Thank God for that, because today I’d be hard pressed to explain why I’d step out of the yoga studio to relax with a cigarette while everyone else was relaxing in shavasana.
Main picture credit (“Fumar Mata”): Matt Doughty