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Home > Culture and Society

Fag Hags

30 July 2004

On Wednesday, Sir Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer launched his annual report into the state of the nation's health and for the second year running he had some pretty unpleasant things to say about smoking.

Donaldson, perhaps unsurprisingly, is against it. He doesn't like it at all. Thinks it's ghastly. He's probably the type who makes fake coughing noises and runs around opening windows pretending he's got asthma when someone lights up on the other side of the room.

Probably hasn't been invited to a party for years. Probably a bit of a git. Anyway, Donaldson supports a full ban and reckons that if one were in place the country as a whole would save between 2.3 and 2.7bn a year. Most of these savings he says would be made from the smokers no longer lying in hospital beds hawking blood into silver flasks when they could still be in the office at their desk, or standing in the doorway downstairs, smoking.

This presumably fails to take into account the billions lost on sending people who simply refuse to stop smoking to jail. More interesting than his economic argument however, was his theory that the best way to stop people smoking is to convince them that it will make them so utterly physically repugnant that no potential love partners will want to touch them with a fifty-foot pole. Let alone their lips.

He also criticised media types for helping to perpetuate the myth that smoking makes you rich and sexy, citing 'a highly successful form of deception, linking cigarette smoking to glamour' which 'builds up the myth that cigarettes will give young people access to social and sexual enhancement'. But is that entirely fair? Is a celebrity really 'promoting' something merely because they do it and the public knows they do it?

Does the fact that Kate Moss always has a fag hanging out her emaciated gob really mean we can blame her when young girls start smoking? Can we then also blame Daniella Westbrook and Naomi Campbell when our children start filling their heads with coke? Can we blame Michael Jackson and Lord Baden-Powell for the rise in the popularity of paedophilia? It would seem a little churlish. After all, everyone prefers celebrities who fuck up to squeaky clean bullshit artists who pretend to be everything they're not. But we stray from the point.

The point is that Sir Liam, despite his well-deserved lack of part invitations, is clearly barking up the right tree. If we really are genuinely concerned about the long-term health of the nation then the people we need to concentrate our efforts on are da kids. We need to ensure that people, and predominantly young people, don't start smoking in the first place. And we know from experience that there's little point harping on about cataracts, hip fractures and peptic ulcers.

Young people don't give a fuck about these things. Talk to them about cataracts and they roll their limpid eyes and snarl at you, perhaps advising you to ask them when they're gone, daddio. What you need to tell them is that if they start smoking, nobody will want to have sex with them.

We also know from experience that his approach is effective. In Wales in 2001 a campaign called 'Fag hag' was launched. This campaign focussed specifically and graphically on how smoking ages the skin. According to tobacco control specialist for the Welsh Assembly Government, Catherine Weatherup, the campaign resulted in a 200% increase in calls to a smoking helpline from 17-20-year-old smokers. The week after the campaign started, two teenagers called in.

So what does this tell us? That people are so superficial and vain that they care more about their physical appearance than their health? That they would rather have a lungful of tumours than crow's feet you could lose a sock in? Yes. That is exactly what it tells us.

Dr Norman Vetter of the University of Wales College of Medicine agrees: 'The argument goes that young girls, who are more likely to start smoking, don't care if they have a stroke or develop cancer by the time they are 30 through smoking. But emphasising the effect smoking has on their appearance could have more of an impact. It could also be argued that informing young men that smoking can cause impotence will have more impact on their immediate life than talking about the other health risks of smoking.'

Cool. So what we need is a campaign of hoary old fuck-ups retching and wheezing from octogenarian faces with a caption revealing them to be in their late twenties. We need images of jaundiced, wrinkly old young men filling themselves with Viagra and covering themselves with foundation before they go out on the pull. We need film of smokers' skin sliding off their faces to the hospital floor as their vain attempts at corrective surgery nbackfire.

We need Dot Cotton and Keith Richards to admit that they're only really in their early 40s.

And then we need to see them making love in a giant ashtray.

That'd do the trick.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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