Beat the Aussies... at Smoking

Sit back, relax; prepare to laugh your ears off, as I tell you a joke about the 1992 World Cup Cricket. Yes, the cup in which Inzamam-ul-Haq kept the ball airborne, Aqib Javed played magic tricks with it, and Waseem Akram used it to break some English ribs. To date, even after some 25 odd years, it continues to keep the nation in the grip of its glory, and has paved way for the captain of the team to claim leadership for the nation, inspired forever by the term he coined for his boys, ‘the cornered tigers’.

The joke, as it goes, is that the event at the time was titled, ‘Benson & Hedges World Cup Cricket’. I apologise if the fierce laughter to the joke has caused you inconvenience. Or rather, it would have, if you were an Australian.

In the world that is today and Australia, a cigarette company merely introducing itself in public, let alone advertising or sponsoring a village fête – let alone an international event is a taboo bigger than all those matters in Pakistan combined. I won’t be surprised at all if a producer here makes a TV series, sets it up in Melbourne, and calls it, ‘Cigarette and the City’, in which four peculiar women, of the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, hang around finding places to smoke. The places would befittingly be not any public ones too, I assure you. And if you think all this is a bit odd, wait till you learn how you buy smokes out here, and how much of moolah you have to part with, getting a pack.

In Australia, it isn’t merely a total blackout ban on any cigarette related advertisement, it is way more than that: you can quite easily call it reverse-advertisement, since the government, by law, forces the cigarette companies to make themselves look ugly, hideous and downright evil. It’s a monopolised blanket policy which, in all of its details, appears – quite convincingly – to have been inspired by the works of Nazi propaganda mastermind and chief Joseph Goebbels.

It’s a two-headed, unassailable monster, this policy, out to devour the tobacco firms. That said, credit though is where it is due: Aussies weren’t the first ones to recognise the need of its two-headedness. I, at least, saw it first in an ad campaign back in Pakistan, during the 90s. It went, ‘come for the style, stay for the taste’. Catchy. Except that it sounds more like a confession than an advertising slogan. The Australian government agrees: it is seeing to it that no one comes for the style, typically associated to smoking like Kurt Cobain, and those who however do, do not stay for the taste.

To begin with, cigarette firms are not allowed to have any distinctive art de couture packing to themselves. In the past, their names may have been symbols of class, culture and lifestyle, but not anymore. They may appear, only in small fonts, at the bottom of an all-alike packaging.

Then are the packs themselves: each one has images of individuals suffering consequences of cigarette smoking, intense and so distressing you can’t really behold them without enforcing a certain detachment to the fact that they are humans like yourself. Or else, you may end up throwing the pack away, which you really can’t, having paid a fortune to get it in the first place. Your pack hence, is not a worthy object d’art, as it used to be, more an object d’base – pathetic, ghastly and revolting, which you carry around like, how the Pope tells us, Jesus of Nazareth carried his cross, destined to be crucified on.

With style stabbed, taste is what’s left. Surely the government can’t force tobacco companies to make their products taste vile, but they can jolly-well make them so expensive, it outdoes the taste, watering your eyes, every time you go near the counter to get a hit. To put it into perspective for the Pakistani readership: the cost to buy the absolute cheapest, nastiest pack of fags in Melbourne will buy you some 25 litres of petrol in Karachi.

To tell you honestly, I approve of this Nazi approach to policy-making on the issue, as much as Adolf Hitler would have. I have personal reasons, you see, having lost my father to an ailment so closely linked to smoking. He was 49. Then, a very close classmate from school, Saeed, who had picked up the same brand as my father did, didn’t make it to 30.

In the interest of what the scientists and the engineers call, ‘a pattern’, I ought to also mention that years later, having moved to Melbourne, I travelled to Karachi and attended a college-boys get-together. We all have aged naturally, but one fellow appeared to have some 20 odd years ahead of us all. He was all full of assurances about his well-being, but my eyes didn’t miss his hand pulling out from his pocket the pack of the exact same brand once way too often.

I can’t, of course, name the brand here for the obvious reasons, but if you’re reading this and having a curious feeling that you may have inadvertently chewed out one of your lungs, and that often you notice that your shadow on ground is a shape of someone in a monk’s rope, hoodie extended long out ahead of its face, holding a staff with an augmenting blade, you are the sort of chap who knows what I am on about.

Will anyone – government, public or private – ever do anything about it? Unlikely. Unfortunately, as it is for so many of our matters, for this too, the situation demands the strategy that of ‘everyman to himself’. The person who can take meaningful action on the affair and beat the Aussies at it no less, is you! You can choose not to smoke, especially in the circumstance which is the unregulated, unmonitored, lethal tobacco industry in Pakistan.