Rick Poynor | Essays

Sublime Little Tubes of Destruction

Book cover by Jamie Keenan, Penguin, 2004

Consider this image of a woman holding a cigarette. Isn't it — I'm afraid there's no way around this — rather beautiful? Even if you hate smoking, does it leave you completely unmoved?

I had better say at once that I am not now, never have been and have no plans to become a smoker. I tried it when I was 13, puffed my way through half a packet and knew it wasn't for me. This wasn't intolerance. Back then, smoking was normal and, in daily life, largely unquestioned. Smokers might struggle to give up, as my father did later, but it wasn't a continuous public health issue in the way it is now. It didn't generate the moral anger, self-righteousness and sense of disgust. Trying the cigarettes, which I did mainly to impress a girl, only confirmed the disinclination I felt in the first place. I had already done a decade or more of passive smoking (we didn't call it that in those days) in the back seat of the family car.

Still, a part of me has always liked the idea of smoking. Leaving aside how nasty it smells and what it's doing to a person's lungs, heart, brain and potency, it does look good. That slender white tube of death in someone's fingers presents a wonderful image. It endows smokers with poise. It gives them a way of filling the moment and something to do with their hands. Their bodies fall into expressive poses. They look convivial, relaxed, part of the picture. Smoking is a way of connecting with other people, or at least with other smokers, and smokers used to seem cooler, edgier, more interesting. They were risk-takers and rebels. Willingness to inhale acrid emissions into the body's vulnerable cavities and transform this life-threatening addiction into a source of deep satisfaction and pleasure set smokers apart from non-smokers, who lacked the uncompromising drive for experience and indifference to mere good health that bound a smoker to his cigarette.

Who would be a smoker today? It must be sickening in more ways than one. In the US and Britain, the smoker has become a pariah. "Smoking is now shorthand for being a loser," writes a British columnist. As I was leaving a publisher's premises the other day, I saw the managing director heading out into the street for a furtive smoke. His staff had delivered an ultimatum, he confided. He couldn't even light up in the confines of his own office.

Has any leisure activity engaged in by adults (and, unfortunately, children) ever been so thoroughly stigmatised by a relentless barrage of social censure, medical disapproval and bad publicity? In a culture otherwise swamped with unregulated branding, the graphic counter-attack on the cigarette packet, on its visual integrity as a design and its brand equity, normally regarded as commercially sacrosanct, is a remarkable sight to behold. In Europe, in the US and around the world, outsized health warnings in ugly typography now disfigure and subvert the best efforts of the brands' designers to embody the fast-fading allure of the cigarette.

Canada has already gone to the next stage and plastered photographs of ruined teeth and cancerous lungs over the packets. In October 2004, the European Union introduced 42 specimen designs, combining imagery with a warning slogan, which member countries are encouraged to use. They are even more unpleasant than the Canadian images — not least the man with a bulbous red tumour flourishing under his chin. As the tide rushes out for smoking, the widespread use of extreme visual shock tactics on the packs is approaching just as fast. "I make no apology for some of the pictures we are using," said David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. "The true face of smoking is disease, death and horror — not the glamour and sophistication the pushers in the tobacco industry try to portray."

Will such brutal wake-up measures work? It's far from certain. All the finger-wagging and the endless dire warnings can make hardened smokers angry at being lectured even less inclined to kick the habit. They also end up attracting new tobacco converts, including young people. Smokers' rights groups are fighting back. You can buy ironic stickers to obliterate the health warnings — "Long painful deaths are in these days" — or you can simply remove the cigarettes, throw the pack away and store the objects of your shameful craving in a stylish case. That's what I would do in their position. Some smokers still mourn the passing of Death cigarettes, a 1990s brand that told it like it was, adding perversely to the glamour. British artist Damien Hirst, who creates work from discarded cigarette butts, confirms that, for some smokers, the habit's deadliness is a crucial part of its existential appeal. "Smoking is the perfect way to commit suicide without actually dying," he says. "I smoke because it's bad, it's really simple. So people can't come up to me and say, oh it's bad for you, don't do it ... I don't trust people who don't smoke." He even designed a pack for Camel.

The most artful defence of smoking can be found in American literary critic Richard Klein's book Cigarettes are Sublime, which he wrote, he explains, as a way of trying to give them up. For Klein, the cigarette is a "crucial integer of our modernity" and he regrets that "their cultural significance is about to be forgotten in the face of the ferocious, often fanatic and superstitious, and frequently suspect attacks upon them ..." He has a point. When you look at photographic portraits made half a century ago of film stars such as Bogart and Monroe, or writer/philosophers such as Sartre and Camus, the smouldering cigarette is more than just a ubiquitous prop, it's a revelation of character, a measure of seriousness, almost a marker of being. Smoking tends to look best pictured in black and white because the slim cylinder's whiteness becomes luminous, the smoke ethereal. In Karsh's picture of Bogart, the punctum — to use Roland Barthes' word — is the smoke trail like soft gauze ascending from the long burning tip of Bogart's cigarette. Is "sublime", in the sense of terrible beauty, not exactly the right word to describe the dark pleasure such images evoke?

Of course, you could argue that photos like this were just another kind of advertising, doing the cigarette companies' dirty work for them, seducing the viewer into believing the most destructive kind of lie: smokers are intelligent, sexy, popular, manly, or tough. These pictures, taken before tobacco's devastating effect on health was understood by the public, are almost unthinkable now. Film stars caught smoking in movies today find themselves accused of encouraging impressionable teenagers to take up the offensive habit, and even writers might have qualms about being so irresponsible as to flaunt their addiction in a publicity shot.

An era is slowly ending. Much as I savour the image of the smoker, if not the noxious fumes, this is a good thing. What's more, the level of righteous graphic intervention by government creates a fantastic international precedent. Compared to some other notable ills, smoking has arguably received an unfair share of the heat. Next up, we could look at guns and the American consumer; the arms trade; the huge annual death toll on the world's roads caused by cars; advertising aimed at brainwashing young children; and, oh, maybe even the effect of massive levels of over-consumption on the global environment.

Put a warning label on that.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business

Comments [27]

I particularly dislike the "medical" anti-smoking ads: the fact that pictures of medical procedures are often revolting has *nothing* do with the fact that smoking was their cause.
Michael S.

Scott Simon for NPR's Weekend Edition today covers Smoking and the Movies.

He notes a study by CHEST (The Cardiopulmonary and Critical Care Journal), Smoking in Contemporary American Cinema. (log-in required)

In American films surveyed from the last 15 years, cigarettes are found to most often indicate...villians. This contradicts most common criticisms of romanticised portrayls of smoking in contemporary films.

Interestingly too, they find that in independent films, we are much more likely to see a smoking character intended to inspire our sympathy.
Randy J. Hunt

smoking is the most public expression of individuality, the cheapest accesory of the anti-hero. a pack of cigarettes is like a do-it-yourself kit of 20 'fuck its'. fuck work, fuck stress, fuck my partner, my parents, my kids, my job, my school, my homework, fuck this stupid conversation im having. like all tools of vice, it abets, as well as soothes, the longing for personal escape into a world of fantasy that is far away from the routine pressures of daily existence.

This is an unfinished thought, but am I the only one who finds things like the "medical" notices a bit hypocritical, at least in terms of governmental sponsorship? They don't seem interested in plastering liquor bottles with pictures of drunks face down in a pool of vomit, or of diseased livers.

Its just the romantic notion of selfneglect/destruction what makes people think its cool to smoke. ooh what a rebel. take the edge! wow! you´re unpleasant, ouuh rebel!
basically you take the fuckfinger and smoke it.
I think its just getting boring if you it becomes a comon place, a regularity, a custom.
aaallways born rebel? naa. noone bought that shit.

As someone who's never even tried smoking them, I find cigarettes absolutely fascinating. From a design point of view, something about their absolutely neutral formal character provokes strong reactions. Is there anything more American than the design of the classic Lucky Strike package, or more French than Gitanes? Likewise, advertisers — faced with a parity product that must be sold entirely on image — have invented incredibly powerful brand images, from the macho fantasy of the Marlboro man to the chic and insidious cryptocrams of Silk Cut.

Of course I hate the smell of cigarette smoke, not to mention the fact that tobacco companies knowingly used the seductive means I describe above to sell death to generations. But still...
Michael Bierut

Su, your point about the hypocrisy, or at least inconsistency, of cigarette health warnings is one of the thoughts behind this post.

Smoking has become a scapegoat, receiving a disproportionate amount of censure, both from officialdom and members of the public. If we are so concerned about the effects of products and the way they are advertised on health, then why stop with tobacco? As you say, why not alcohol? And why stop there? Fashion ads could come with a warning panel saying "Images of unrealistically thin women can lead to eating disorders." Fast food ads could be stamped with obligatory reminders that "Obesity in children causes serious health problems in later life." It's not just smoking that takes its toll on physical or psychological well-being and costs the health services a fortune.

This sounds far-fetched, but as I noted, the level of intervention by government in the case of tobacco does create a precedent, though many would see this as the unwelcome intrusion of what in Britain we call the "nanny state".
Rick Poynor

I feel strongly about this subject. Exposure to second hand cigarette smoke makes me feel more hung over than a few drinks too many. I am sickened by parents and guardians who, knowing what we now know about cigarettes, choose to smoke inside houses where young minds and bodies are present.

To me, cigarette consumption, even in moderation, impacts those around it. I would argue that one can responsibly drink alcohol but one cannot responsibly smoke cigarettes. If in the company of friends those friends are consuming alcohol (in moderation) and I don't want to drink, I am unaffected. If they binge drink, I may or many not be affected but they can still be "responsible" to others by at least not getting behind the wheel (or choosing to avoid any other number of activities).

Cigarette smoking (or any other kind of smoking) in the presence of others can not be a responsible act. Your very choice to light up will impact me directly if I am in your presence. Yes, as manuel says, this is a "fuck you"... it's a "fuck you and your health, fuck you and your decision not to smoke because you're going to smoke fucking anyway because I'm going to make you."

I even wonder about the act of smoking when not in the presence of non-smokers. I wonder about the environmental and air quality impact of (millions? billions?) of smokers worldwide. Surely all that smoke changes the air. To me, the act of smoking shows a disregard for self and others.

I know it's not that simple, of course. Many smokers are addicted and it's not such a black and white issue. Many of my smoker friends are (self)consciously aware of their smoking in the presence of others. But it doesn't change the effect of their action.

The use of visual "scare tactics" is appropriate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe that 80% of all smokers started smoking as teenagers. Anything that can be done to un-cool smoking for this age group is fine by me.

Finally, I just want to add that I'm disturbed by Damien Hirst's comment that "...I don't trust people who don't smoke."
Andrew Twigg

(Andrew, don't let Hirst get to you. That's all he wants, that's all he's about.)

If you want to be disturbed, take that energy and put it towards something contructive, like cigarette bashing or your own "anti-packs" of smokes. So many designers look for ways to donate their time and energy to causes. Already we have t.r.u.t.h. What can you do?


Use design yourself and light things up.
Jason Tselentis

Andrew, I don't want to stray from the topic, but the distinction between the social effects of smoking and alcohol is not so clear-cut. They just have different kinds of impact. People don't necessarily drink responsibly and others can suffer. In the UK, binge drinking is a social problem. In recent years, on Friday and Saturday evenings, many British city centres have been blighted by increased levels of drunken, rowdy, thoughtless, violent behaviour. This presents overstretched police forces with a real headache, and it keeps non-drinkers away from threatening, vomit-splattered city centres they have a right to enjoy.
Rick Poynor

lets not forget that alcohol, in the united states, was at one point much more intervened with and regulated by the government then cigarettes ever have been, during the prohibition years.

the loss of a relative (or more recently, national figures like peter jennings) to smoking is tragic, but i think the effect of alcoholism on families is much strongter than cigarette addiction. severe alcoholism can lead to complete disfunctionality in day to day things, whereas numerous tasks can still be completed while being addicted to cigarettes.

im in no way condoning the use of cigarettes, i agree with many of andrew twiggs' points. but i do feel that the focus on cigarettes is a bit odd. i mean, cars do much much more to ruin the environment and air than smokers ever will. i read a report once (unfortunately i dont have the source), that said that breathing the air on an exceptionally smoggy day in los angeles is equivalent to smoking 2 packs of cigarettes. so if we are going to say that smoking is irresponsible, then so is automobile driving.

Rick, Manuel

I agree with both of you that this is an issue which could easily be pushed aside. It's interesting and no wonder that it gets so much attention (imagine telling people that driving a car causes cancer, even if that statement could be absolutely proven true).

For me, the issue of smoking is a highly personal one and am frustrated by smoking in a way that I'm not frustrated by other 'societal ills'. I guess you could call it a pet peeve.

Rick, is it appropriate to look at the role of design in other forms of conspicuous consumption (see this part of the page which talks about it in in the context of 'psychoactive substances'), or would that be going off topic?
Andrew Twigg

One reason that cigarettes are singled out is that cigarette smoking kills more people than AIDS, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, homicide, suicide, motor vehicle accidents, and fires combined. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cigarette smoking among adults-United States, 1999. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report 2001; 50:869-873)

As for cars, it is true they are the primary source of air pollution in much of the U.S., and as a result cause much illness and death, but a major difference is that cars serve a practical function (much as one might regret U.S. automobile dependency).
Betsy Kane

to return to the original point of this thread, the life of cigarettes in visual culture, i wanted to mention two current films, wong kar wai's latest film, '2046', and jim jarmusch's 'coffee and cigarettes'. there were aspects to both films that i liked, though i didnt think they were either director's best film. but cigarette smoking played a pretty central role in each film.

in wong kar wai's film, cigarette smoking, and its association with stoicism and individuality, is romanticized to extremes. cigarette smoke becomes almost a metaphor for loneliness and ephemerality. at points in the film i cringed at the oversentimenalization of smoking, but there was one scene with faye wong that captured cigarette smoking very well.

in coffee and cigarettes, smoking isnt actually romanticized that much. its just kind of this habit people have, they know it kills them, but they cant seem to quit either. andn then they just admit that they like it. people in the film try to connect over the ritual of smoking and drinking coffee together, but then the characters are so cold and distant from each other. in this film, smoking together is a stand in for being alone together.


[One reason that cigarettes are singled out is that cigarette smoking kills more people than AIDS, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, homicide, suicide, motor vehicle accidents, and fires combined. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cigarette smoking among adults-United States, 1999. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report 2001; 50:869-873)]

Call me skeptical, Ms. Kane, but attributions of cancerous deaths to smoking seems very akin to diagnosing children, and even adults now, with A.D.D. Designed for effect. Don't think so? Try counting how many hazardous materials are in your home, apartment, office, and food packaging, that you breath/touch/eat on a daily basis.

Statistics are a lot like documentaries-specifically manipulated versions of truth, subtly designed. I'm not a whacko paranoiac, I've just worked with a lot of various materials and have family members in the medical field.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the Smoking debate is the composition of information, given the guise of one of my favorite redundancies- the "real truth". While so much amazing work, both written and visual, and been produced from both sides, I look forward to the day when media makers get savvy and take on the likes of the Insurance industry and medical giants like Phizer. Good tee shirt desingers will make a killing...

Far from diminishing the power of the tobacco industry, the anti-smoking adverts and campaigns have only proven to be a nuisance to them (don't you think they understood this 20 years ago?) The anti-smoking forces have been absorbed and co-opted by these very adept marketing companies to conveniently sustain their profitable businesses under a veneer (smokescreen) of social accountability.

Until we eliminate smoking (analogy = slavery) we will continue to live, die, and all of us will inevitably support the huge costs of health care and social damage that is the outcome and result of tobacco.

In this context design in service to tobacco merchandising or its marketing (for and against) is ultimately a distraction from its primary impact of sickness and premature death.


what makes smoking glamorous & sophisticated?
I've smoked, and its disgusting. I've smelt the sulphery, stinky breath of a girlfriend who smoked, and I've seen post-op lung cancer patients in the hospital with a tube hanging out of their chest draining orangey liquid into a plastic box beside their bed.

I see why people smoke -- its amazingly addictive -- but why is it glamorous? A triumph of advertising!

Grant, I didn't see anything about "attributions of cancer deaths from smoking" in the quote from the Centers for Disease Control or in my post. As to the scientific underpinnings and/or reliability of the data, this is the Centers for Disease Control we're talking about -- with all due respect to your family members in the medical field.
Betsy Kane

Re: the packaging: well, call me crazy, but I have always found the graphic Canadian warnings hilarious. They are also the butt (ahem) of smokers' jokes: I know men who will ask for various packages (e.g. "No, not the brain with a stroke—the pregnant woman pack, I'll take that one.") with the full knowledge that they're taking the piss out of the message.

What really makes people quit? Taxes. The cost of a pack of cigarettes in Canada is at least twice what it is in the US, and when you listen to smokers, that's their #1 complaint.

Graphics, schmaphics: money talks.

Re: the movies. I have no data to prove this, but it seems to me that smoking in the movies dropped off almost completely in the 80s, to the point that when I did finally see a cigarette in a movie in the 90s I was genuinely shocked. Then they started creeping back and I noticed them everywhere. I think smoking in the movies is on the wane again, but it's still around and it still means "cool." (Villians, btw, are cooler than good guys.)

Aside: Remember Dallas? Did anyone besides me ever notice how much those people drank? Yikes! JR Ewing was a sortof proto-Julian from the Trailer Park Boys, with a drink constantly in his hand.

Smoking has become a scapegoat,

Odd, I was just talking with a group of ... ahem ... 8 smokers last week and this came up. One person's theory was that society needs scapegoats and right now it's smokers: he figures fat people are next.

marian bantjes

I luckily live in lovely liberalised Canada, where it is practically illegal to smoke (at least in Ontario). You can smoke outside and in your own home and that is about it.

And thank heavens for it! Being an Brit, it is so nice now to go out for a pleasant drink (not a binge one) with friends and not come out of a bar smelling like an ash tray. And yes Rick as you know, I have experienced the binge-drinking phenomenon first hand in Britain and it is shockingly disgusting. But am I wrong in thinking the government is introducing measures to curb this social phenomenon? If so then does this counter your points about general health risks?

I have British family staying with me currently and I must say their fascination with drinking is absurd. It is a large topic of conversation and they constantly do it.

Also the premier of Ontario tried to introduce a provincial "fat-tax" on fast and junk food last year, but the activists where outraged and it never went anywhere. I believe obesity and unhealthy eating is the next smoking. In fifteen years in Canada I think you won't see many people eating junk food in public.
Ben Hagon

marian, i feel that ive noticed this too. but something like in the last ten years. i cant remember the exact movie where i first noticed smoking on screen again, but it seemed like it was coming out of the era of grunge (smoking is still legal in public places in seattle, btw). ive lived in cities for the last three years in which smoking in public places is illegal. i recently took a road trip to jersey, philadelphia and d.c., where one can still light up in restaurants and bars. it gave me a sense of time travel to be in bars where you could smell cigarette stench and observe people smoking with their drinks, and places seemed much dirtier because of it. cleanliness does equal progress and sophistication.

regarding drinking and dallas, i believe it is still against the law in the US to consume alcoholic drinks on television. alcohol can appear, but one cannot show its consumption. or perhaps this only applies to advertisements. anyways, i remember a commercial by a beer company when onscreen consumption by humans was made illegal; they had a guy dressed up in a gorilla suit drinking instead.

On the other hand, China's tobacco monopoly actually promotes "the many health benefits of smoking" :

audio link to report by Mary Kay Magistad
mary-jo valentino

You write as if you believe the C.D.C. to be impervious of data miscalculation, Ms. Kane. If that were the case, then they must conduct exhaustive tests on small mammals because they're having fun, not because medical understanding of the human body is in a perpetual state of flux. And the largest group attributed to death-by-smoking, the elderly, all grew up in perfectly ventilated homes, asbestos and mold spore free, with purified natural gas heating and smoke-free furnaces. Don't bother considering all those household aerosol cleaning products everyone used from the fifties into the eighties. They were perfectly non-toxic, as far we know, just like the lead paint they used to cover their pretty walls. All this while living in their brand new brick homes, loaded with low-to-high levels of radiation, tending the gardens with mild pesticides to keep those nasty little aphids off their night-blooming jasmines and crepe myrtles.

The C.D.C. is fallible, I'm afraid. Because it made up of humans who have agendas, just like NASA. And I don't believe this would be the first time they make a claim today, only to deny tomorrow. Such is the nature of science, even data collection, which is so highly manipulatable.

Smoking stains fingers, yellows nails, and leaves a thin, brownish film on glass, devastates lung tissue. Everyone agrees- bad things happen from smoking.

Regardless, the information that surrounds the issue of smoking is ultimately designed, by both factions. Cigarette manufacturers present smoking as a kind of soothing cocktail, a brief escape from the burdens of modernity. Beer companies work from the same motif. Those against smoking present the habit, addiction, daily-acknowledgment-that-death-is-unescapable, as the scourge of civilization, fueled by greedy corporations run by faceless executives. The amazing thing is that each side uses fully developed visual styles and branding techniques in order to affect a wider audience in what is ultimately a political and financial struggle.

Re: statistics and data maintained by the CDC.
(1) Name a more reliable source.
(2) To understand how causality is determined under the scientific method, please refer to the following weblink "How Do We Conclude That Smoking is a Cause of Disease?": Link
(3) For a searchable database of more than 62,000 research studies, data, and reports on smoking maintained by the CDC, which should begin to answer the questions you pose, refer to this. Link
Betsy Kane

Name a source showing that the CDC is fallible, like all other human institutions? Sure. Go here.

The CDC employs many of the brightest minds in the world. I have no reason to doubt that. And I don't mind if they get things wrong occasionally. That's just part of both the learning process and ungodly stress they endure. The manner in which they present their findings, however, is rather fascinating to me.

One thing that Grant's posts do evince is that scientific illiteracy increases the opportunities for apt marketers to take advantage of a public incapable of distinguishing between anecdote and evidence. Where the distinction between reliable and unreliable information is unclear, quackery, soothsaying, and magical thinking thrive. "Ionic cleansing," astrology, Chinese medicines made from tiger gall, and such, thrive on marketing messages delivered to a public widely untutored and incapable of a rational understanding ... for whatever reason, whether it be the education system, or an innate tendency towards wishfulness.

In such an environment, does a designer in the marketing field have, perhaps, a special ethical responsibility in crafting his or her message and approach? Must a designer educate him or herself in the rigors of causation analysis, the underpinnings of rational understanding and scientific method? Or is taking the assignment as it comes sufficient?
Betsy Kane

I can appreciate the history of tobacco design, I can appreciate the humor over this habit, I loved coffee and cigarettes! I can also appreciate that some, who have never smoked, can get so pist off about cigarettes, they can assume they understand it and explain it. The truth is, for me anyway, I've been trying to quit for 4 years now, started when I was 14, and it is a damn hard thing to do. Yet I realize that what I am really trying to do, is to be willing to stop a pleasure, to get up the guts to go through the hell of mental withdrawal. When you have a love one come down with a smoking-related disease, the rest of the bullshit, the TALK, all goes out the shitter...and all you are left with is the scream in your head that says "JUST BAN THE FUCKING CIGARETTE FOR GOOD ALREADY, HASN'T THERE BEEN ENOUGH TALK." Whoops, I'm sorry, I think the 'trying to quit smoking' forum is down the right to the next website. My fault. Keep talking.
Kara Elliott

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