Thursday, June 30, 2011


After leaving childhood and the need to occupy the morning blankness while eating my cereal, I ceased to be influenced by any kind of food-box design.

I "see" the fonts and the clever Serving Suggestion photos, but all I read and respond to is the Nutrition Facts chart relegated to the side. Note: there must be a minimum size requirement or ratio — do you resent the federal government getting involved in that? Note 2: their food groups gave way to a food pyramid, but, Americans not being into such shapes (except on the back of their Greenback), the graphic was switched to a plate. Long live the simple pie-chart.

In September 2012, while the nation is a-buzz with a presidential campaign, the former-smoker commander-in-chief will be defending his health care law, his handling of the economy, and, I guess, his administration's decision to cut tax revenue by trying to reduce cigarette sales.

Fourteen months from now, new gruesome and design-ugly labeling will be required on packs of cigs. This, after the tobacco companies were prohibited from using words like "light" or "mild" to differentiate between kinds of smokes within their brand.

Who responds to packaging? We all do, but it only goes so far.

The official media on it says that 20 percent of us smoke in this country, despite the Surgeon General's warnings and the constricting local laws about where one is allowed to light up. They say that while smoking has decreased since its hey-day (a novel I just finished reading has the 1941 pregnant woman on Lucky Strikes over and over and without irony), youngsters continue to smoke, helping to populate the persistent 20-percent group that includes those who never quit.

Well, that's not so bad, considering how many of us still eat beef several times a week — and who might be eating hormone-laden, over-processed beef at that, along with food products containing a list of ingredients that take up more space on boxes and vacuum bags than the corresponding nutrition (or lack of nutrition) information chart. (If that were turned into a pie chart, you'd find that half would be labeled "sodium.")

What will you say when they start posting pictures of yellowed fat cells on McDonald's bags, of diabetic amputated foot-stubs on cookie boxes? Rotted teeth adorning our ice cream cartons … fat guts overhanging pants-lines emblazoned on our Doritos bags …

As an aside, one hardly needs new graphic intervention: at the supermarket, Wal-Mart, fast-food establishment and elsewhere, there are plenty of real-life examples of what happens to your body if you continually make certain choices. We ate at a Freddy's (it's like a cheap counter-service Steak-n-Shake in mid-Kansas) on our way back from Colorado, and everyone in there, except the Menonnites and/or Amish were globby-shaped, even the kiddos. Don't get me wrong: I love burgers and skinny fries … even shakes, and I didn't wuss out and get some salad or just have an apple or something, but I try try try not to eat burgers as often as I wish (which would be every day — which I should try so that I get sick of them, perhaps, the way I have gotten sick of apples. I probably eat 3 beef-related products a month, not counting cheese — quick, make a label for my hormone-free imported cheddar that shows a clogged artery …).

The persistence of tobacco use seems due to a few factors: one, as stated above, visual cues do not work. (Have you seen the visual evidence against methamphetamine use, for example? Good gracious, they look like smokers times 1,000, but people decide to start using that drug anyway.) I recall that the Bodies exhibition (the controversial one that used Chinese people whose credentials and consent were cloudy) had a healthy lung / smoker lung in side-by-side cases, along with a depository where one could, if so shocked and motivated, get rid of one's cigarettes. I should follow up and see whether anyone did.

Two: young people feel immortal and are always going to make not-so-great decisions. It's our prerogative as youngsters that we get to make mistakes. I shall not be listing mine here at this time — ancient history — but I can count on you to recall yours and presume that I have done my share of risky and risqué behaviors over the years — and consider — I'm someone who has words like summa cum laude in her past. Just think of all the blog comments you read from people whose words indicate both a lack of English training and an absence of critical thinking skills: of course, people start smoking or do meth or whatever. And, teens especially are not going to be swayed away by gore. They have been brought up on it, after all; the fact that we have such violence on regular television and other media displayed all red and creepy is one reason, I suspect, that this new cigarette packaging seemed like a "normal" thing for our society to do.

Three: (related to #2) the negative effects of smoking tobacco are nearly invisible and do not show up in short order. In other words, people smoke and smoke, a bit like how some drink and drink or even eat and eat, without severe near-term consequences. Sure, you have a hard time walking up the stairs. Yes, your clothes are stinky and your teeth get a little yellower than you'd like. Good news! There are products to handle that all over the market. But it takes years and years to wear yourself down toward death-by-nicotine (or smoke inhalation). Humans were designed only to live 40 to 50 years in the first place.

Face it, you've seen perhaps five people in your life carting around their O2 tanks. I've known, (and in a sense was rather removed in both cases, though I spent time with each of these men), exactly two people who died from lung cancer that was probably caused by their prolonged tobacco use over decades. I've known far more with breast and prostate cancer. Of course, let's not forget about Grandma So-and-so, who smoked all her life and didn't die until the age of 91.

Oh, heart disease is a top killer, but we rather run about and accept that as "normal," too, I guess. It's not acquired solely from smoking anyway, so …

We know that people generally don't respond to knowledge rapidly; smoking is pleasant for some (and addictive to most), fats and sugars taste damn good, and condoms are tedious and uncomfortable (another topic for another day — I hear that because AIDS is somewhat "curable" in folks' opinions that they are less inclined to suit up against infection these days).

Even price does not deter much … we're as collectively addicted to water and gasoline as we are cigarettes. I can't remember who it was who told a story about arriving at our Midwest airport and asking about buying cigs, but whomever he talked to said, "Well, they're expensive here," at something like $8 a pack. He laughed because he was used to paying much more than that. Probably in New York. Yeah, my memory is crummy, and my external editor is not going to cut this useless section of text : )

I don't feel that the new packaging rules for cigarettes sold in the United States will make a difference – except to the basis of free speech. Marcia Coyle, who regularly reports on the Supreme Court, said recently on the PBS Newshour, in a summary of our current justices' trends, that they rule for companies when it comes to the First Amendment. I expect the challenges expected from Philip Morris (aka Nabisco/Kraft and a bunch of wine brands besides), RJR Reynolds (it's interesting the differences on their corporate homepages, isn't it?) et al will receive due process and are likely to be upheld.

For why should any one product be required to alter its packaging with gruesome images, when other, arguably equally harmful items go merrily along with happy colors and claims of puppies and rainbows in pleasing fonts and tones?

There is also the argument, alluded to above, that government should not be interfering with marketing strategy whatsoever, especially when that strategy is a commonly accepted part of society. Granted, it's been illegal to show anyone actually drinking beer or liquor in a beer or spirits commercial on television or to show any cigarette ad there for years, and I guess that was the start of the slippery slope; never fear, we have bladder, depression, heart disease and other prescription med ads in their place — and lots of truck ads … lots of truck ads.

Here I am sounding like a "conservative," and I resent any such labels on me, one way or the other; part of what makes my country un-great is its duality hang-up and inability to elucidate or even discuss nuance.

I do have faith, however, in the resilience of the American consumer. Leave aside for a moment the fact that tobacco products constitute the largest illegally sold drug in the world (tax evasion), and leave there, too, the fact that our U.S. tobacco companies make most of their profits abroad (and in "food"). Those 20 percent of Americans are still going to smoke; just look at any high school or college campus.

Given the new labeling laws, I predict a forthcoming retooling of cigarette display racks (unless the lawmakers thought it through and prohibited that, too); since the bold, garish, dissuasive section of the newly minted packs will be on top, I forsee a way that packs will be inserted upwards. Don't they already do it this way at convenience stores, the ones that the clerk has to reach overhead for, as if from a rearview mirror where you stash your toll tickets and sunglasses?

There also will be a resurgence of the classic cigarette case, only the hardcase models will be tall enough to accommodate the larger filtered cigs that most people smoke today, not the stubby ones you find in antique stores. The soft cases have unlimited potential. Artists have a great opportunity to get knitting, forging, engraving, etc. And there's always the sexy roll-your-own route; no need either to inhale a million non-tobacco over-addictive chemicals or to see a cadaver who supposedly died from smoking. (I want someone, maybe Harper's, to publish the consent form on that one … it makes me not want to body-donate, you know, knowing that maybe my picture could be used for advertising the negative effects of getting a liberal arts degree.)

Do I smoke? No, not really. I have smoked, both as a second-hander child of two parents and then occasionally under stress, in foreign countries, or under alcohol-induced what-have-you when someone else had them around. Nicotine makes me ill in an immediate way, though, and I can only look on wistfully while watching Casablanca or when reading Camus. I always wanted it to be fun, to smoke; however, it just isn't. Still, I am disheartened by the regulations that say menthol or clove or other flavored cigarettes are illegal now, simply because "children" apparently are attracted to them. Let me tell you, my first cigarette was stolen from a parent, and my first enjoyed cigarette was, in fact, a clove product.

I also once bought some cloves and a pack of "fun" English cigs with my mother (in my 20s) before going to a film with her at an art theatre. I still disparage both her and my father for smoking, especially smoking in front of me (on me), but I am a kettle and I do not preach much to the pots. I just chalk it up as "well, I'll smell gross now," and try to move on. I do hugely appreciate the (overreaching?) legislation (often grass-roots initiated) that has made smoking in most bars and restaurants a thing of the past.

The rules against tobacco use are, as my mom points out, counter to the present-day push for the legalization of marijuana (which is largely smoked), though I would say that pot can be ingested. Also, it is causing tens of thousands of deaths due to its prohibition status and should probably be legalized and then dealt with through education and fun new packaging, I guess. Cigarettes are a choice, living under the violent rule of drug lords is not.

Just think, you could unwrap your medical, "non-Mexico certified" MJ from cellophane that depicts a burned-out loser. Well, until we see labels on liquor that say more than "don't drink if you're pregnant or drive/operate machinery if you drink," that's quite a silly pipe-dream, I'm sure, and the laser-beam attack on one genre of sin-product is unbalanced.

Not to mention: it won't work.