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After the discovery that unfounded jealousy and low self-esteem have led her to alienate a promising romantic prospect, Connie Baker, played by a disarmingly lovable Ginnifer Goodwin in Mona Lisa Smile, retires from the 1950’s ballroom into the dark opulence of a grand, lusciously carpeted staircase and uses her trembling, perfectly manicured, scarlet-nailed hands to light a consolatory cigarette. Uncontrollable tears stream down her face, but the expression in her eyes is an intriguing mixture of concentration on the task of inhaling and something else that we can’t quite decipher. But what colour is her cigarette packet?
And what was the brand of tobacco rolled into thin, crumpled, slow-burning stubs nervously fingered by Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman in The Hours) as she stared at an empty wall and contemplated the narratives that would captivate readers for generations to come – the narratives that are the very reason why the film, and the novel that inspired it, came into existence and recognition?
As the British government’s flirtation with smoker-bashing blossoms into a vertiginous romance, the proposal to ‘de-brand’ cigarette packaging stands out from the rest not because it is radical and disturbingly portentous, but because the rationale behind it belittles the imaginative powers of the mind. By portraying adolescents as five-year-olds in a tuck shop, it offers a particularly bleak view not just of smokers, but of the human species.
Cigarettes are Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir discussing existence and essence (he was dazzlingly popular with his high school students for allowing them to smoke in class). They are the scrawny Bob Dylan, coat collar up, eyes down, on a cold New York sidewalk. The precious hands of Dostoevsky and T.S. Eliot, stained by tobacco and ink. The young Holden Caulfield and his screw-you hunting cap. They smack of the most productive varieties of rebellion, of artistic, intellectual, and emotional intensity laced with a forbidden fruit complex. A government that respects its teenage population could ask whether such ideas are among those that motivate young people to take up the ruinous habit of smoking. For now, though, the best we have come up with is that the youngsters are drawn to the bright packaging like a bull to a red rag.
Hiding tobacco in closed cabinets is akin to confusing it with paracetamol and teenagers with toddlers. Banning cigarettes from cinema screens would be condescending and historically inaccurate; putting them into yucky green packages, mostly just condescending. To curb teenage smoking, we need to endow young people with a sense of self that is strong enough to admire without aping. To misquote yet another famous smoker, ‘sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette.’ But this is not one of those times.