The disappearance of cigarettes from the public sphere is one of the most impressive conjuring tricks of modern times. A few weeks ago, I went to see a film set in the 1970s, and was amazed to see how strange it looked to see someone smoking indoors. And not just indoors, in a hospital. The children sitting behind me were audibly astonished that such a ludicrous thing had ever happened.
I had to remind myself that people still smoked indoors until five years ago, because in my mind it belongs to another era completely. And now the government has announced an extension to the consultation period on replacing cigarette packaging with plain olive green boxes. Packs of cigarettes may soon disappear from view as completely as if they had been smoked into nothingness.
Apparently, there is such strong public interest in the matter that more time was needed for people to respond. I’m slightly perplexed by this: I don’t doubt the strength of feeling in both directions. But how much time can we need to express our feelings on a binary issue? Should cigarette packs change to be plain green? The longest possible answer to that question is one syllable.
The real question is why the government isn’t suggesting something more radical. Olive green is not a horrible colour. It’s a nice colour. It reminds us of olives, which are tasty. If Andrew Lansley were truly committed to ensuring, as he has said, that tobacco companies have no business in the UK, he might need to come up with something more off-putting than green. If you’re trying to dissuade people who are prepared to stain their hands yellow for a cigarette, green cardboard probably won’t be a deal-breaker.
So perhaps this is what we could do with the extra consultation time: come up with uglier packaging ideas for cigarettes. I have a particular dislike of the mustard colour of Captain Kirk’s uniform – how about that? With a line of neon pink piping round the outside for maximum queasiness?
Other options might include covering the packs with the words ‘I love’, and then pictures of internationally risible public figures. If you had to get Piers Morgan out of your pocket every time you needed a fix, surely nicotine withdrawal would soon seem like a small price to pay.