Yesterday I came across a painting – Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise – by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Since Renoir died in 1919, it must have been painted some years before the outbreak of WW1, depicting as it does a scene of idyllic peace.
I couldn’t help but think that the young man lounging back in his chair, smoking a cigarette, and gazing into the distance, would quite likely have been dead a few years after the painting had been finished, blown to bits at Verdun or some other battlefield. So also the slightly older man on the left. And the young lady in the foreground might well have become the widow of one of them.
So this morning when my eyes fell upon a packet of Golden Virginia with the loud banner, in black and white, imperiously announcing that “Smoking kills“, I wondered: “Does it?”
Does it? Does it really? I think it’s things like howitzers and machine guns and rifles and grenades and chlorine gas that kill people. I think plague and dysentery and cholera and typhoid kill people. I think that air and car and rail crashes kill people. But I’ve never heard of anyone ever being killed by cigarettes, dropping dead within minutes of smoking one – or even smoking twenty or a hundred.
If – and it’s a very, very big if – smoking kills anyone at all, it is as some sort of very slow-acting poison, that takes almost an entire lifetime to have its fatal effect. If “smokers die younger”, as another one of these banners declares, they don’t seem to die very much younger than anyone else. And some of them, like Jeanne Calment, outlive more or less everyone.
It’s an exaggeration to say that smoking kills. It’s also an exaggeration to print this assertion as a large black and white banner. And it’s a further vast exaggeration to print it on every single tobacco product in the entire world – which is what is now happening.
What profound contempt these antismoking zealots must have for smokers, that they seem to believe that they will only get the message if they read it two hundred thousand times. Isn’t once enough? Or do they believe that anything is only ever learned by endless rote repetition, like times tables or Latin conjugations? If that’s how they think that anything ever gets learned, doesn’t it suggest that this is the only way that the zealots themselves have ever learned anything? And is learning anything in such parrot-fashion true learning? Isn’t it just repetition?
But perhaps these banner headlines are not intended for us dumb smokers, but to deter those who might be considering taking up the fatal pastime? Perhaps the idea is to prevent children from starting smoking? But is that likely, given that many children won’t have learnt to read until they have already started smoking, and will be unable to comprehend the message in the warning banners?
Or maybe these banner headlines are intended neither for smokers nor curious children, but instead to tell the world. For I can read the half-inch size letters on the banners from 20 feet away. Perhaps the idea is that, once you’ve taken out the packet of cigarettes in some bar or restaurant, everyone at nearby tables will quickly learn that they are in the presence of another dying smoker, who is about to launch a deadly gas attack upon them.
Whichever way, since we are now learning that all sorts of other things are also slowly killing us – alcohol, sugar, salt, meat, fat, etc, etc – shouldn’t the warning banners say something like “Smoking (along with drinking, eating, sitting in armchairs, global warming, etc.) kills”? Perhaps the only reason they don’t is that this would dilute the otherwise pithy message.
Or is it that, once “Smoking kills” has begun to outshout “Golden Virginia”, it will replace the brand name. And customers will begin to ask for “a packet of Smoking Kills, please,” or “May I have 20 Smoking Causes Fatal Lung Cancer, please.”
And does it really matter how long anyone lives? Is that the only measure of a life, how long it lasted? Was the life of that doomed young man in Renoir’s painting worth any the less for being so sharply truncated? We are all going to die one day anyway. Or perhaps it’s this fact of life that the zealots cannot accept?
Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived to the age of 78, which is almost exactly the life expectancy of a man in the early 21st century, and so a long life 100 years earlier.
Here’s a video of him, shot in 1915, sat before a canvas, smoking a cigarette, which has been passed to him and then lit by one of his companions, because by 1915 he was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
I only hope that the antismoking owners of any Renoir painting realise that it is almost certainly coated in thirdhand tobacco smoke, slowly leeching out into the atmosphere and killing everyone for miles around. And Renoir paintings should carry health warnings.