Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Smokes gasping for life

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Cigarettes are taking their last breath of charisma as Australia's plain-packaging regime kicks in, and a century of popular culture is ground into history's ashtray.

Canada is reportedly toying with the following our radical approach, which begins Dec. 1.

On that day any Aussie corner store owner bold enough to sell a branded pack faces a $220,000 fine, and probably bankruptcy.

Already smokes sit hidden in stores in trays covered by doors of steel grey or black -- as inviting as a refrigerator in a morgue.

Where once they offered you a horseback adventure with a stampeding herd, or a date with a bikini-clad companion on a tropical beach, now they offer you little more than a slow death via emphysema.

When the corporate brandings disappear, all smokes will be sold in dull packages featuring graphic photos of blackened tongues and tumoured lungs, all the work of nefarious nicotine.

This is what the legislation framed by former Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon is designed to do -- rob the cig of its sex appeal.

As Rob Cunningham of the Canadian Cancer Society reportedly said recently, a cigarette's mojo can disappear in a puff of smoke when the oxygen of marketing is cut off.

Calling on Ottawa to adopt Australia's policy, he called smoke packets "mini-billboards" with messages of status and sophistication.

"The brand and the logos are at the core of tobacco industry marketing," he reportedly said. "A cigarette is nothing without those intangible images."

So true. With little difference between tobacco plants, the Don Drapers of the Mad Men world were forced to mine their dark arts to seduce smokers into choosing a brand.

And so we got the greatest advertisements on the planet, honing in on social ebbs and flows with a laser-like accuracy that only rabid hunger for corporate profits can guarantee.

From the Second World War through the stability of the 1950s to the first stirrings of the sexual revolution, tobacco companies outflanked soft drink manufacturers in bankrolling adverts to mirror the national mood.

A night at the movies right up until the mid-'70s brought the bonus of mini films before the main feature. A cigarette advert could transport us from dull provincial towns to St. Moritz where splendid-looking people, clearly not afflicted by lung cancer, engaged in witty exchanges and charming flirtations.

Timid suburban railway clerks believed they could rope and ride wild horses to the soundtrack from The Magnificent Seven; the socially inept became urbane sophisticates by flicking a lighter in front of a slim cylinder of tobacco.

But it was our home-grown brands, one of which featured local comic Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee), who exploited the growing nationalism of the '70s to sell us literally millions of "gaspers,'' as we affectionately called them.

Dressed in a tuxedo with the Sydney Opera House in the background and an entire symphonic orchestra providing his soundtrack, "Hoges" almost managed to make smoking a patriotic imperative.

But that was then. Tasmania's upper house on Wednesday called for a ban on the sale of smokes to anyone born after the year 2000.

This country's long-running affair with tobacco has ended. Smoking kills and costs a fortune in a health system where taxpayers still carry the bulk of the financial burden.

Strangely enough, there's still plenty of addictive and highly illegal drugs doing a brisk trade on Australian street corners every day.

They come in plain packaging, and their manufacturers have never spent so much as a dollar on advertising.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2012 A11

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