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Smoke and rearview mirrors

Britain may not find support in the arts for its proposed ban on smoking in cars.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2011 00:37 IST

Smoking: bad for you. Driving: bad for you. Smoking and driving: really, really bad for you. So says the British Medical Association, which wants smoking in cars banned. But if they’re looking for a useful, readymade health warning from the arts, they’ve got their work cut out.

Hollywood spent most of the postwar era promoting smoking as glamorous, meaningful, sociable, sexy, rebellious, and just plain normal. Herculean smokers such as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart promoted cigarettes off-screen before smoking did them in. And special mention must go to Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, in which someone smokes in every scene.

Negative portrayals are rare, unless you count Michael Mann’s anti-big-tobacco masterpiece The Insider. Let’s not even try to deconstruct the 1980s Star Wars anti-smoking ad in which C3PO catches R2D2 sneaking a fag. Nor is Cheech and Chong fumigating their car with marijuana in Up in Smoke much of a deterrent. The Blues Brothers added wearing shades after dark to the driving-and-smoking mix (“It’s 106 miles to Chicago …”), which hardly helps. Ditto Jeff Bridges dropping his roach between his legs and crashing in The Big Lebowski.

TV has made fingerwagging hints that people who smoke are ill-educated, ill-disciplined or simply evil, such as the Cigarette Smoking Man of The X-Files, or The Simpsons’ raspy-voiced, ash-haired Patty and Selma. Then again, would Mad Men work if nobody was allowed to smoke or discuss advertising tobacco? Or if they all had stained teeth and halitosis?

As for the visual arts, Alphonse Mucha’s elegant art nouveau smokers could have inspired Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s look, but Van Gogh’s ‘Skull with Burning Cigarette’ should be printed on every fag packet.

Sarah Lucas chose to decorate toilet bowls, dogs, coffins and even Jesus with Marlboros. Especially relevant is her 1998 work ‘Life’s a Drag Organs’, consisting of two burnt-out cars with cigarette-covered seats. Then there’s Damien Hirst’s ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’, consisting of fags, a lighter and large ashtray on a table, inside a vitrine. A metaphor for mortality and confinement? Or an anti-vehicular-smoking ad ahead of its time?

First Published: Nov 18, 2011 00:36 IST