A picture’s worth to a smoker … 14/03/10

THEY say that a picture speaks a thousand words and graphics have the power to change perceptions towards certain issues. That was the intent of the government and cancer awareness movements when graphical cigarette warning labels were introduced to cigarette boxes in Malaysia.  

Sadly, these very graphic images of gangrene, lung cancer, and foetuses of mothers who smoked have had very little impact on smokers in the country.


Eye recall that when the graphics were first introduced, friends who were smokers were  disgusted with the pictures and would remove their cigarettes and place them into those fancy cigarette cases sold at little souvenir shops in the malls.

Eventually they became all too familiar with these graphical cigarette boxes and the graphics became almost non-existent to them. A box of cigarettes is still a box of cigarettes and those who are still intent on smoking will go on buying cigarettes, graphics or not.

The Eye recently stumbled across an entry on Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong blog on warning signs on cigarette boxes. For those who are not familiar with Lance Armstrong (where have you been living?), he’s the guy who beat a bout of well advanced testicular cancer that had also spread to his brain, abdomen, lungs, and lymph nodes and then became the seven-time Le Tour de France champion.

Livestrong is the tagline   of the Lance Armstrong Cancer Foundation that he initiated.

Anyway, back to the blog entry by a staff member of the foundation. The Eye was actually surprised to learn from the blog that cigarette boxes in the United States do not carry large or graphical warnings as they do in other countries.

The blog entry kicked     off a discussion on whether these graphical warnings are in fact effective, or otherwise. The blog can be viewed at http://livestrongblog.org.

Some argued, based on experience, that graphical warnings do not have any effect on those who still choose to smoke. Others argued, based on formal studies carried out, that graphics of damage caused by cigarette smoking will in fact contribute to deterring people from smoking and encourage cessation.

The Eye does not want to seem to be a sceptic of formal studies, but seriously, based on experience of being around friends who are smokers, the graphics of rotting body parts, tumours and foetuses messed up by cigarette smoking have had no effect.

Yes, they may have voiced their disgust at the graphics when these warnings were first introduced to Malaysia. Yes, they may have tried to avoid the truth by moving their cigarettes into fancy casings, but as long as they choose to smoke, these graphics will not make a difference. And neither will the increasing price of fags.

Then there’s that other category of smokers who have resorted to changing brands to ‘underwater’ cigarettes that do not carry such graphical warnings and are not usually displayed on the shelves of sundry shops.

These cigarettes are apparently cheaper and one has to ask the cashier or shop’s tauke for them, as the boxes will be nicely stashed away in some secluded corner. Most sundry shops, neighbourhood grocers and village tuck shops sell these cigarettes. There are some that even come in lemon and green apple flavours!

Many argue that it takes more than increasing taxes and disturbing graphical health warnings on cigarette boxes for a smoker to quit smoking. Many have tried and lost the battle to the nicotine sticks, despite being very well aware of the risks involved. Nevertheless, there have been some success stories.

A friend of the Eye decided, out of the blue one evening to quit after smoking the last stick in the box he had with him then. He hasn’t looked back since. According to this friend, it is ‘all in the head’. What a person needs are three things — to come to peace with the decision to quit, willpower and stubbornness. In fact, two months after quitting, he decided to administer a ‘self test’. He lighted up on a kretek stick which was previously his ‘brand’.  Instead of getting hooked, he threw up and could not finish the stick. These days, he cannot stand the smell of cigarettes and actually wonders how he had allowed himself to stink the way smokers do, in the past. Till today, some of his former ‘fresh air kaki’ chide him for ‘leaving the gang’. Again, he stressed that it was how one psyched oneself into staying away from smoking. And he admitted that it wasn’t the graphical warnings nor the high prices of cigarettes. He could have very well chosen to do what the rest did, i.e. resort to the cheaper, underground fags without the graphical warnings, but he didn’t. It’s all in the head.

The Eye has also heard of people resorting to other methods of smoking. One which the Eye found particularly confounding was e-cigarettes. Yup! Electronic-Cigarettes or green cigarettes that can      be charged like a mobile phone! Believe it or not, such things actually exist. Anyway, the Eye will leave discussion on these e-cigarettes for another Sunday.

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