Owen Edwards | Essays

Packing it In

Photograph by Owen Edwards, 2011

I don’t smoke, and I haven’t decided yet if it’s worth spending whatever a pack of cigarettes costs these days to get a close look at the new FDA-required health warnings. These little horror shows are designed to solve a powerful addiction through the magic of graphic ghastliness. No longer is a smoker told what can happen, he or she is shown what has happened. The morale? Succumb to the temptations of Old Nicotine, and this is the hell that awaits you. From what I’ve seen second hand, the idea seems to be that a picture of, say, a diseased lung or a corpse occupying half the package will somehow take all the pleasure out of that long, perilous drag on a Marlboro.

This design change may prove to be a boon to the collective national health, though anti-smoking laws and inflated prices are probably more effective. But with every gain there’s a loss, and, frankly, I miss the unfettered graphics of cigarette packs of yore. Though I never have smoked, even in marine boot camp, when “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” was the only reward my hard-pressed recruit platoon was ever offered, cigarettes and their packaging have figured into my life as a design writer and art collector. I included the Camel pack (RIP) in Quintessence, a book on industrial design that I co-authored in 1981, back when you could still smoke in bars and ball parks. The exotic little packet, designed in 1913 by Klee Ad Art, was described as “a wonderful evocation of the exotic Middle East whose design resembles — except for the placement of the palm trees and the pyramid — a 1920 etching by a French artist named de Sevres.”

And on a wall in my living room hang three large format platinum prints by Irving Penn, super-sized portraits of cigarette butts that had been picked up from Manhattan streets. The extreme close-ups let one concentrate on the delicacy of the paper and the elegance of the logos — in the case of my photos, Lucky Strike, Kent, and Camels. Even stubbed out and stepped on, the butts are not so much turned into objets d’art by Penn as they are revealed to be little masterworks of mass produced industrial design. And I can close my eyes and see the alluring little packs that carried 20 of each brand, tightly wrapped in cellophane and worthy of the admiration of smokers and non-smokers alike.

I once thought about writing a book I wanted to call Packs Americana, in which I’d celebrate the art of packaging for well-known products. In studying this Warholian array, cigarette packs were consistent standouts, miniature advertising posters designed with dash and dignity. And in my memory, the packs still stand out: the rectitude of my father’s red and white Pall Malls, the perfect round bullseye of Lucky Strikes, and, of course, that faithful, patient dromedary for which — R.J. Reynolds assured us — any discerning smoker would walk a mile.

Pleasing graphics aside, of course, there were dubious advertising campaigns featuring doctors praising the cigarettes they preferred, and disingenuous research showing the benefits of filters and added menthol. I remember well one particularly misleading cigarette brand in Greece called Sante, implying unspecific health benefits, and adding to its seduction with a Betty Grable style blonde on a bright red background. But was anyone fooled?

Growing up in the fifties, when smoking was something movie stars showed us how to do elegantly and most teenagers couldn’t wait to grow into, there were no warnings on the handsome little packs. But everyone knew that smoking was a bad idea, even if it did make you look just like James Dean or Audrey Hepburn. Standard slang called cigarettes “coffin nails,” and high school coaches constantly sounded dire warnings about what evil weed would do to one’s lungs (never mind what football did to my knees). My heavy-smoking father tried hard to discourage me and my brother from lighting up, even while putting a match to his first cigarette of the day over his morning coffee. After decades of gory lore and parental proscription and Ad Council admonitions, it’s hard to believe that there’s a smoker in America unaware of the ferocity of Puff, the tragic dragon. So it’s likely that there’s no warning, however grisly, that will discourage someone who really, really, really wants a smoke. We have, therefore, ruined a small graphic diversion to hammer home an essentially pointless point. Even in Greece, the Sante pinup now shares package space with a bold-faced warning.

It’s always possible that the cigarette packs with their shocking pictures will become collectibles, like a kind of baleful baseball card. But in saying goodbye to a design element that has long been part of our visual environment, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll eventually be seeing photos of morbidly obese people and distorted hearts on fast food cartons, or mandatory death’s head decals on new cars, or blow-ups of e-coli bacteria on bags of fresh spinach. After all, danger is everywhere.

Comments [6]

On a vaguely related note, I felt like pointing out to you and your readers, a series of works I rather like: Claes Oldenburg's Cigarette Butts.


The preparatory drawings for this series are wonderful. I have a large poster for this exhibit, I used to have it on my wall, but I took it down and stored it. It was unframed, and I feared it would be discolored by nicotine stains from my smoking.

We've had these kinds of packs in Australia for quite a few years and now we're even moving to (controversial) plain packaging. An unexpected side-effect would be that people would request the package with the least graphic picture. Of the current American versions, I would ask for the confident goateed quit man. But it's a good idea cigarettes are dangerous.
Nick Gross

the australian images are, were in the near future, far more graphic.
the new rules are to be a test case is many ways. legal and other.
how the learned graphic designers will handle them is challenge.
but the challenge is there.

I don't understand the point of this article you wrote. You talk about the horrors of smoking, that you collect art and write books and mention that photos and ads about smoking are changing as is society and the reflection it has on the subject.
This is nothing new. It appears though to be a bit condescending as you close with the wondering if obese people will be displayed on fast food packaging.
Not a very interesting or insightful article, sorry.
Chuck Miller

If someone really really really want to smoke, he should. that's the meaning of not prohibiting.

... but the bottom line is that the article is against the bad pictures in cigarretes package for the sake of beautiful graphic design and that's very very futile.

I remember seeing somewhere there are plans to do away with packaging designs altogether and have the brand name printed on plain backgrounds with a universal type treatment. In the same plans was an idea to change cigarette filters from the current (standard) orange/brown to an olive green colour (in an attempt to make them even less appealing)

I agree with your article, cigarette packets were (and some still are) wonderful pieces of design and the world is educated enough (and will continue to be educated enough) to know the dangers of smoking. Why ruin a perfect little canvas to flog a dead horse?

Anyone who disagrees should surely be campaigning for photographs of diseased livers or car crashes to be printed on beer cans and bottles of wine.
Pannett - UK

Jobs | May 22