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Anti-Smoking Public Information Films

How the government tried to persuade us to quit the demon weed

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Ever since the 1950s, when medical evidence first suggested a direct link between smoking and lung cancer, successive governments have been trying to wean smokers off their addiction to what the puritans called the 'evil weed'. After it became the height of fashion in the 1920s, smoking had become so ingrained in everyday life - roughly half the adult population smoked by the mid-20th century - that early anti-smoking campaigns chiefly targeted children and teenagers, the assumption being that persuading adults to quit was probably futile. There was also the political concern that mass media warnings might generate unfounded cancer phobia which in turn might place unwarranted demands on the already over-stretched National Health Service.

This might have informed the characteristically non-committal approach of one of the earliest anti-smoking campaigns, the Council for Health Education's (CCHE) comic strip pamphlet featuring: 'The Adventures of the Wisdom Family: What-No Smoking?' At the request of his wife and son, Mr Wisdom goes to see the family General Practitioner, Dr Brain, to enquire about the potential health risks of smoking. Dr Brain warns him about the risks of lung cancer but quickly undermines the gravity of the situation: "it still does not sound as if the risk is very great, so there's no need to get in a panic, whatever you decide to do". Mr Wisdom returns home and resignedly declares to his family: "I'm too old a sinner to change".

The publication of the 1962 report by the Royal College of Physicians, which provided incontrovertible proof that smoking caused lung cancer, stirred up a storm in the media and was the subject of a BBC Panorama programme. It galvanised a much more committed approach on the part of health authorities and the first official anti-smoking film: Smoking and You (1963) was commissioned. Replete with biopsy slides of blackened lungs and disturbing footage of wheezing hospital-bound middle-aged smokers, the film pulled no punches in warning its 11-16 year-old target audience about the risks of experimenting with cigarettes.

The Ministry of Health opted for a less admonitory attack with its two subsequent offerings. The Smoking Machine (1964) follows a fun-filled Famous Five-style narrative and the jaunty Halas & Batchelor-produced cartoon strip, Dying For a Smoke (1967) introduces that evil purveyor of cigarettes, Nick O'Teen, who was famously resurrected in the 1980s series Superman Versus Nick O'Teen (1981-83). In the latter he is pitted against an altogether more formidable force than the benevolent white-coated ex-smoker doctor who confronts him in Dying for a Smoke.

Perhaps in spite of the ban on tobacco advertising on television in 1965, cigarette brands ran increasingly glossy poster and sponsored-event campaigns, which did little to ease the task of anti-smoking appeals. At the end of the 1960s the CCHE was replaced by the central government-funded Health Education Council (HEC). Far better resourced and more media savvy than its predecessor, it was able to give tobacco advertising a run for its money. It was, in fact, the HEC who gave Charles Saatchi's nascent advertising outfit its first big break with the commissioning of the 'Why learn the truth about lung cancer the hard way?' poster and brochure campaign in 1970. Inevitably, poster campaigns extended to television fillers and, in 1971 (the year that health warnings on cigarette packs and ads appeared), Saatchi & Saatchi's arresting TV filler showing smokers crossing London's Waterloo Bridge intercut with footage of lemmings throwing themselves off a cliff, brought public health advertising a notch above its commercial counterparts. Ironically, Saatchi & Saatchi would later be responsible for bringing new kudos to cigarette brands, especially Gallaher with their groundbreaking high-concept 1980s Silk Cut ads.

Women, unlike men, had shown no reduction in smoking prevalence between the end of WW2 and the mid-1970s and they became the focus of many 1970s campaigns. For maximum impact, pregnant women were targeted and a poster showing a naked, expectant mother smoking with the caption "Is it fair to force your baby to smoke cigarettes?" would have distracted many a driver. It also seeded what would prove to be the most compelling anti-smoking argument to date: that of passive smoking. Children were heavily targeted in the 1980s in response to statistical evidence that smokers usually started before the age of 10. Thenceforth, along with a shift of focus from lung cancer to heart disease (most memorably imparted by the British Heart Foundation's Give Up Before You Clog Up (2003) campaign, which left a trail of gunk on many a smoker's conscience, passive smoking became the number one weapon wielded on our screens. Particular emphasis was given to the effects of passive smoking on children who were shown to be more prone to lung cancer or even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) if their parents smoked. Instead of inculcating a sense of responsibility for their own health, addicts could now be lambasted for selfishly inflicting harm on their 'pure-lunged' fellow citizens. Old Mr Wisdom's, "I'm too old a sinner to change" attitude might have washed back then, but in the 21st century court of the anti-nicotine brigade he might find himself in the dock on a charge of manslaughter...

In tandem with medical research, across half a century of anti-smoking films the approaches have become increasingly hard-hitting. The exception was during the 1990s when, assuming that most smokers by now had a basic awareness of the health risks, advertising was re-pitched to incorporate a more supportive role, such as Quit for Life (1996-97) which focused on the benefits of quitting. Possibly the most harrowing campaign of all is the highly emotive Testimonials series broadcast in the early 2000s in which real ex-smokers provide raspy testimonials from their deathbeds. Shock tactics reached unprecedented levels with the unforgettable Don't Get Hooked campaign which depicted smokers being gruesomely speared through the cheeks by giant fish hooks. The campaign prompted a barrage of complaints from the public who found the images offensive distressing, causing the Advertising Standards Authority to step in and impose a ban on the posters and restrict broadcasting of the TV fillers. Conversely, the Department of Health highly praised the campaign as it had prompted an increased usage of their anti-smoking websites and helplines.

Given that around 20% of the population continue to enjoy the solace of a cigarette today (albeit often a sneaky one, given the current ban on smoking in public places), the never-ending battle to stub out the glamorous connotations engendered by decades of glossy tobacco advertising continues in earnest. Proof positive, perhaps, of the continuing power of film.

Katy McGahan

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Dying for a Smoke (1967)Dying for a Smoke (1967)

Halas & Batchelor cartoon with an anti-smoking message

Thumbnail image of Give Up Before You Clog Up (2003)Give Up Before You Clog Up (2003)

Memorably - and effectively - disgusting film about clogged arteries

Thumbnail image of Passive Smoking: Smoking Kids (2003)Passive Smoking: Smoking Kids (2003)

Anti-smoking film focusing on potential danger to children.

Thumbnail image of Smoker of the Future (1985)Smoker of the Future (1985)

Sci-fi campaign film looking at how future smokers might evolve

Thumbnail image of Smoking and You (1963)Smoking and You (1963)

The first major government-sponsored anti-smoking campaign

Thumbnail image of Superman Vs Nick O'Teen (1981)Superman Vs Nick O'Teen (1981)

A familiar figure helps defeat the evil cigarette peddler

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