Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Plain brown wrapper

When I was a kid, if you saw an empty Lucky Strike cigarette pack on the sidewalk, you stepped on it, and hit (not hard, but a hit-hit, not a tap) the nearest kid to you in the arm, while hollering “Lucky Strike.” This, of course, attests to a few things about the 1950’s and 1960’s:

People littered. The streets weren’t full of garbage, but people routinely tossed gum wrappers, cigarette packs, soda empties, banana peels, and all sorts of other stuff wherever they were standing when they were done with it. There’s a funny scene in an early Mad Men episode in which Don, Betty and the kids are on a picnic. When they’re done eating, they shake out their picnic blanket on the grass, and leave all their trash behind.

We weren’t a littering family – the only thing we could throw out the car window was an apple core, so “the birds can get it” – but you did see people throw all sorts of trash out of their cars while tootling down the highway. Of course, back then, people didn’t have as much stuff, everything wasn’t over-packaged, and there wasn’t much by way of fast food, so it wasn’t as if we were walking and driving around in landfill. Still, roadsides and sidewalks were far more littered back then than they are today – and this is coming from someone who routinely picks up trash from the sidewalk in front of her house, and from the paths through the Boston Common. That’s thank to the ‘don’t be a litterbug movement,” which aimed to “Keep America Beautiful,” by telling people that “Every Litter Bit Hurts.” All of a sudden, littering was something that just wasn’t done.

Kids hit each other. Even when they weren’t fighting, it’s my sense that kids used to hit, shove, push, trip, kick, and otherwise whack away at each other far more than they do today. I’m not talking mean kids. I’m not talking bullies. I’m talking physical contact of the routine kind, when play was a lot less regulated, children’s activities were a lot less observed and mediated, and life for kids was a lot more rough and tumble. There was one game when you took a kid by the arm and swung them around a couple of times, and then let go. Whatever awkward position they landed in, they were supposed to maintain or they were out. In another game, you hopped on one foot with your arms crossed and tried to knock another kid – also hopping on one foot with arms crossed – on their keister. Dodge Ball. Red Rover. Making a “whip” when you were skating. These weren’t blood sports. Until they were. And is there a Baby Boomer who at one point or another didn’t go whining to a parent to complain about being hit by another kid who wasn’t told “Well, go hit him back.” I’m not advocating for violence here, or Lord of the Flies, but you did get toughened up. And knowing that the other kid might spot that Lucky Strike packet first and whack you, did keep you on the alert.

People smoked. Other than having one lunatic brother who refuses to kick the filthy habit, I don’t know many/any people who smoke. This was not always the case. Growing up – pre-Surgeon General’s Report – almost all men and a lot of women smoked. Before switching to Marlboro’s, my father smoked Luckies, and a Christmas gift might be a beanbag ashtray or, if a couple of us chipped in, a carton of smokes. My mother didn’t smoke, but some of her friends did. And some of my friends’ mothers smoked. Two of those mothers died of lung cancer, by the way. Teenagers hung around on street corners, smoking.

When we visited the glamorous teen mother, Bee, who lived in a three decker in our neighborhood, and let us hang out with her, we always hoped that her gas station attendant husband George would come in while we were there – handsome George with his slick DA, and his packet of cigarettes rolled up on his shoulder, in the sleeve of his white tee shirt.

Fast forward into the 1970’s, and I was an episodic smoker. Mostly when I was a waitress. We smoked so that we could take cigarette breaks. So that if the head waitress or manager came looking for you, you could tell them, “Just let me finish my f’ing cigarette.”

I smoked Salems, in the green and white package. Menthols. “Take a puff, it’s springtime.” I switched to Virginia Slims. A cigarette aimed at women. Mostly white packet. “You’ve come a long way, baby.” But who needed a “girl’s cigarette”?

So I started smoking Marlboros. Red and white packs. Women were getting liberated. Marlboros, with the Marlboro man, were kind of butch. “You get a lot to like with a Marlboro.”

My final stop was Mores – skinny brown cigarettes in a green packet. I have no recall of any tagline. I smoked them because a friend of mine did.

All told, I maybe purchased thirty or forty packs of cigarettes in the course of my life time. I never smoked enough to become brand loyal. But I do remember what those cigarette packs looked like.

And now some countries are trying to enforce plain packaging of cigarettes, so that they’re less attractive to consumers – especially younger ones. Togo is one such country, but Philip Morris is going after them for it, threatening that masking cigarette brands in a plain brown wrapper would be unwise.

It would risk “violating the Togolese constitution”, the firm’s subsidiary explained, “providing tobacco manufacturers the right to significant compensation.” It then outlined how plain packaging would violate binding global and regional agreements. (Source: The Economist)

That violating the constitution thing sounds like an NRA-style argument, but Big Tobacco has sued Uruguay for warnings on packaging that Philip Morris claims violated a trade agreement. Big Tobacco is appealing to the World Trade Organization, griping that not being able to use their trademarks is “an appropriation of intellectual property.”

LSMFT – Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco” -  as “intellectual property”? Never thought of it that way, but if you say so…

Australia has been the most radical in terms of their push for non-brand appealing packaging:

…banishing iconic trademarks from tobacco packs. Its law mandates that brand names—such as Marlboro, Winfield or Dunhill—appear iyn grey type against a background of Pantone 448C, a putrid green deemed the world’s ugliest colour by a market-research firm.gallery-1464022582-ugliest-color

It’s actually more of a putrid brown color, but the point it made.

Other countries – including France, Ireland, and Canada have initiated plain packaging as well.

Big Tobacco, of course, would rather fight than switch. Given the rulings against TV advertising, and the mandates for warnings on packages:

…plain packaging clamps down on one of their last bits of advertising. The design of the box is where they must convey not only the name of the brand but abstract qualities, such as masculinity or the idea that a product is “premium”, and worth an extra outlay. If such traits are stripped from packs, consumers may choose cheaper brands. That is particularly worrisome in emerging markets…where standard packs would threaten the aspirational appeal of smoking.

The article suggests that the plain packaging movement is unlikely to impact the US, given the strength of the First Amendment. But you never know. The US did manage to kick cigarette ads off of television, after all.

It won’t impact me one way or the other. Probably not my smokin’ brother, either. But I will say I would be less inclined to pick up any product packaged in guck brown, with gray printing on it. And when the product is as rotten and dangerous as cigarettes, that’s a good thing.

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