Some people in my class had chewing gum in the shape of cigarettes,” said my daughter conspiratorially, while I nearly choked with astonishment.
Aah, candy cigarettes. I remember them well. We used to pretend to inhale from them on cold winter mornings, when our breath would look like the smoke. People smoked back then, on trains, in hairdressers – our parents smoked. We lived in a different world, at least I thought we did. But it seems candy cigarettes are still with us.
I spent the bus ride home trying to explain tobacco company manipulation to my nine-year-old and, first chance I got, went online to the class Facebook group. The other parents would surely be as horrified as I was, right? Wrong. No-one seemed that fussed. My outraged comment got one ‘like’ and a helpful comment from another mother saying that they always lose interest in these things after the first few weeks of term. She had a point. If you forbid something outright, kids usually want to do it more.
So I couldn’t help but feel like slightly less of a neurotic mother when, a few weeks later, the EU moved to clamp down on tobacco marketing and promotion aimed at youngsters and ban sweeties that resemble tobacco products.
The fact is that 95 percent of new smokers are under 25. In other words, if you are going to start smoking, you will probably do it young. Studies show that teenagers get addicted more quickly to nicotine than grown-ups, and that those who find it hardest to give up are often people who started in their teens rather than later on. Smoking is also more harmful for teens, although the damage may not show until later in life.
So what’s not to like as far as the EU action is concerned? Could the next step in tobacco control be, quite literally, taking candy from a baby?
The problem is that in Denmark the equivalent of a PR nuclear weapon was deployed quite incidentally on the side of the ‘tobacconists’, out of a fear that the ban will not stop at candy cigarettes, but also do away with that most Danish of institutions: liquorice ‘Skipper’s Pipes’.
Even I have to admit there is something fetish-inducing about them. They come wrapped in crinkly paper in these dear little boxes. On the lid there’s a picture of the nautical Skipper himself, complete with a bushy beard and seafarer’s hat. The candy is pipe-shaped, made of liquorice and stuffed with pink sprinkles – that’s Skipper revealing his camp side.
With dark clouds gathering over Skipper, Danish traditionalists were quick to react. There are two Facebook groups in support of the threatened confectionary, both called ‘Bevar Lakridspiben’, one with 24,912 likes and the other with 53,443 likes. Then after all the furore, it was revealed that not only was the media-reported ban merely a suggestion by an EU committee, but it also made no mention whatsoever of the liquorice pipes. The rumour, however, is still in circulation and the tobacco companies’ PR agencies must be thinking it’s Christmas.
But anyway, pipes and cigarettes are very different things when it comes to young smokers. Your Grandpa and Skipper smoke pipes, not sexy, edgy young rap stars. You will never hear concerned Danish mothers saying: “We’re a bit worried about Jesper, he’s grown a large beard and keeps saying ‘Shiver me timbers’. I blame that Skipper, he’s a bad influence.”
However, the elephant in the room is why tobacco products appear as candy in the first place. Of all the adult products that could be replicated in edible form, why pipes and cigarettes? You don’t see candy condoms or chocolate milkshakes in a pretend vodka bottle. It seems inappropriate, not something that should be a part of childhood, yet condoms save lives and alcohol can be consumed at safe levels. Tobacco, on the other hand, as former World Health Organisation director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland famously said, is the only consumer product that, when used as directed, kills you.
Imagine if there was an experiment in which one country’s children were given a smoke-free environment with disincentives to start smoking, while another country was chock-a-block with smoky atmospheres, cheap ciggies and tobacco product candy. Where would you want your child to grow up?