For a little light relief, here is a column I wrote some time ago.
There was a sphincter-clenching advertisement in last week’s Sunday papers. It came with a WARNING and featured a giant photograph of a thug pointing a revolver directly at my head. I automatically ducked and spilled hot coffee on Brenda who shot of bed and stood on the cat who attacked the dog who jumped on the bed and bit me in the leg.
After the paramedics left, I went back for a second look at the advert that caused all the trouble. WARNING. Sounded serious. The gangster with the gun looked pretty damn serious, too. He had the face of a man who has just walked in from a hard night of smoking tik with the boys, to find me shtupping his mother.
I thought the advert was going to advise me on what to do this festive season should I be confronted by a street smart sociopath suffering from dangerously low self-esteem and a violent drug-induced psychosis. But, no. It was a warning not to buy illegal cigarettes. Excuse me? Was this desperado going to hunt me down and shoot me if I bought a box of black market fags?
In a print size slightly smaller than WARNING, I was told: “The money you spend on illegal cigarettes, he could use to buy guns.”
Being a Cell C subscriber, I should be accustomed to having trouble making connections, but this was something else. My mental clutch was slipping badly. Then I read the even smaller print. “Often the person smuggling cigarettes is involved in other criminal activity. If you buy a pack of 20 cigarettes for under R13.50 it may be illegal. Stop your money from helping to pull the trigger.”
Firstly, what kind of self-respecting hoodlum needs to stand on street corners selling packs of fake Marlboro to be able to afford a gun? Here in Cape Town, if you want a gun, you stab the person who has one and take it away from him.
Your neighbour was shot by someone who wanted his car? Do you smoke? Are your cigarettes the genuine article? If not, you’re just as culpable and should hand yourself over to the police at once. Please let me know when you do, because I want to be there when the constable takes down your statement.
“Yes, officer, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. My neighbour was killed by a hijacker and I blame myself because I bought a packet of dodgy smokes last week while waiting for the lights to change. I insist you arrest me.”
Half a page is apparently not enough to drive home this valuable public service announcement. A separate advert, also with a WARNING, says that if you tick the box to any one of five statements, you could be in possession of illegal cigarettes.
Here’s one of them: “There are the wrong health warnings on the pack.” Would something like: “Choking hazard – not for children under three” fall into this category? Bit of a grey area.
Another says: “The readings on the pack are higher than 12mg Tar and 1.2mg of Nicotine.”
So what they’re saying, in effect, is that nobody should buy cigarettes that are cheap, strong and devoid of annoying health warnings. If I smoked, those are precisely the kind of cigarettes I would look for. What am I talking about? I do smoke. But only after the second hit of the fourth beer. Which, in my book, doesn’t make me a smoker. If anything, it makes me a latent dipsomaniac with self-destructive tendencies. Which is so much healthier.
The advert ends: “If you are in possession of illegal cigarettes and you continue to buy them, you are funding other criminal activity.”
Hmm. Something doesn’t quite gel, here. Isn’t it enough to warn people that buying illegal cigarettes is, well, illegal, without making them feel that they are also responsible for every violent crime committed in the country?
The advert helpfully provided an 0800 number for me to call, but I was unable to find out much because the phone was answered by a recording of a woman who sounded like she had been punched in the head one too many times. Probably as a result of someone having bought an entire carton of illegal cigarettes.
“Welcome to the TISA hotline. If you suspect illicit trading in tobacco or tobacco products, please leave a message …”
TISA is the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa. They protect the interests of the tobacco industry. Their members include British American Tobacco (BAT), JT International and Phillip Morris.
At first I thought TISA was behind this unbranded campaign. Then I discovered it was actually BAT itself. The company already sells around 20 billion cigarettes annually in South Africa. But that’s not enough, is it? If people stop buying contraband, BAT stands to sell an extra six billion cigs a year. That should keep the petty cash topped up for a while.
If there were any honesty or ethics in this filthy business, the advertisement would have read: “WARNING. The money you spend on illegal cigarettes should be spent on our products.” But that will never happen. Why? Because cigarette advertising is illegal.
I am going to give up beer and by doing so, give up casual smoking. No, I’m not. I am going to save up the money I would have spent on cigarettes and buy a gun. Then I am going to randomly shoot a bunch of people and blame the tobacco industry.
This is getting too complicated. I might just go and lie down for a bit.
* The author has since kicked the habit and befriended the monkey on his back.