Cigarette warning

Above: Examples of cigarette packet photo-led warnings. Credit: UK Government Dept of Health and Social Care.

Hydrogen Cyanide

Since 2008, UK cigarette packs have carried large photo-led health warnings on the outside of the packet. Some of the photos are extremely graphic. There is something perverse--and Ballardian--about the legal obligation for each cigarette pack to carry photos that are intended to induce instant disgust and repulsion. Not only is the requirement an obvious example of "nanny state" but the selection of photos is so horrifying that their presence could not possibly be justified as a reasonable health warning. Armed with their noble cause, the State, under pressure from lobby-charity ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), has placed into circulation a series of photos that are explicit and disturbing: Damien Hirst, Mat Collishaw or Jake Chapman could not have created more distressing pictures. (The pack warnings actually do look like a series of artworks commissioned by these horror-artists.)

The images are a format of visual abuse or visual violence: they do violence to the viewer (with a supposed noble cause) in a way which drifts towards the sadistic. The desire of the warning-designers is to alarm the smoker into ceasing. But placing such distressing images of human suffering into the public domain in this way has its own consequences--it normalizes such imagery for one, and it will also tend to produce desensitization to trauma (after a few viewings the smoker becomes inured and accustomed to such sights and the power-to-shock wanes).

The UK is one of the only countries in the world that deals with smokers this way and the reason being the NHS: smoking-related illness costs the free health service tens-of-millions-of-pounds each year. In the end the logic of these sickening images is their function as a weapon in an urgent cost-cutting drive.

(4 March 2018)