Have you been to Tesco recently? No? How about Sainsburys? Maybe to get some cigarettes? Well if you have, you might have been confused for a minute or two because the smokes have vanished into thin air.
Pardon the pun, but no, they are not really gone – they have just been hidden. A law which had until recently had been evaded by these two chains has forced the grocery stores to cover up. Gone are the Marlboro Red’s and Camel Blues, not to mention the green Golden Virginia, behind a panel with little brand names written in the corners.
People have noticed too: many critics (and no small number of St Andrews students) have denounced the law — which as per the Health Act 2009, requires cigarettes to be hidden by large supermarkets by 2011 but gave smaller stores until 2015 to stash them away — as childish and ineffective. Surprising then that the inspiration for the law came from the idea that the sight of cigarettes behind the counters raised the incentive for children to start smoking, normalizing them to the sight of cigarette packs.
For adults who already smoke, it seems, the effect is not one of prevention but largely annoyance. We think, we’re gonna buy ‘em anyways, why keep ‘em secret? But that really is not the point.
Remember the first time you saw a “Smoking Kills” notice on a pack of cigarettes? I don’t. People grow accustomed to warnings and the power of the nicotine fix seems to overcome even the most gruesome depiction of its long-term effects.
This new method is no longer aimed at caution but prevention. Sorry, all you pack-a-day smokers, but this one really isn’t about you. One study reported that every day in England 430 children become young smokers. This, even after public awareness of the harm that cigarettes inflict upon the body is at an all time high.
Will the hidden packs lay untouched? The idea raises the question of just how powerful visual stimuli really are in our society. Everyone has seen the Dominoes commercials on late night TV and felt their stomach growl. Or what about when you see those golden arches from the motorway? Hungry yet?
In the marketed world of today everything is about stimulation. We are surrounded by prompts: coffee fold outs on Market Street invite you into Starbucks; cool, quirky twenty-something hipsters encourage you to change your brand of computer; and beautiful TV women with lush, flowing locks suggest you really use their new shampoo. Now, shampooing too vigorously can hardly be compared to chain-smoking, but the general idea – that advertisement and exposure prompts consumption – provided the impetus for the regulation. The image of the cigarette brand, this law would suggest, is powerful enough to make kids pick them up
The deconstruction of the cigarette’s image has been underway for decades. To a certain extent this has been effective, as surveys show that the percentage of the UK population that smokes tobacco has been cut in half in the past thirty-five years. The removal of cigarette ads from television and most areas of public attention is basically complete. Now this law looks to take their image out of the very place they are bought.
The logic is as follows: if you don’t see cigarettes, you won’t think about them, if you don’t think about them, then you won’t want them. And why would you smoke them if you don’t want them? The ultimate goal of health campaigners is the removal of cigarettes from the sphere of public consciousness and what is considered a part of normal life.
Given that two thirds of smokers begin smoking before they are eighteen, if legislation does prove effective then the next generation could live in a world where cigarettes are only seen in the periphery of the public eye.
In our visual world, marketing would suggest that what you see is what you want. This new law further breaks down the image of the cigarette in public space. The effects of which may not become apparent until new statistics on children growing up right now can be gathered. While many critics and smokers may be annoyed at the moment, the public eye may soon see the smoke blow over, and away.