Warnings

by ammophila

It is always a pleasure to receive a contribution from our principal financial supporter, (Baron) Malory von Hollenberg, and we are consequently delighted to present his thoughts in this piece sent from his current location in Australia.

I have been ruminating on the use of warning signs and pictures. These days a good many governments compel cigarette companies to print warning notices on packs of their cigarettes, often with an alarming picture of the physiological damage that can be caused by the habit. This is a convenient way for governments to balance two obligations. As guardians of their country’s inhabitants they have a responsibility obvious to all, except the occasional Minister of Health, to try to keep them in the best possible physical condition. There is in any case no point in holding would-be invaders at bay by purchasing all available modern weaponry if your well-defended citizens are too feeble or sick to keep the economic wheels humming in the manner you require. One might therefore expect governments to ban the sale of cigarettes. But governments also have a duty to keep their own accounts in the best possible financial health. As it happens, this too they could do by banning cigarettes, but only on condition that they could extract large amounts of money from the massive illegal trade in cigarettes which would be certain to arise, and which within a few years might exercise more influence on the workings of society than do the existing tobacco companies. In principle this source of funds should be within reach.   Direct taxation of course would be politically embarrassing, even though one concedes that political self-contradiction is an electoral advantage when judiciously managed. However, a better option could be to impose severe fines on traders arrested, while taking care that arrests are not so frequent as to hamper their activities seriously; gaol terms should seldom be imposed, so that traders can resume their activities at an early date. A somewhat similar approach, learned from financial regulators, would repress the illegality with a light touch, but would tax heavily all manner of associated activities and objects and locales. (American experiences during Prohibition could be helpful) . However, in practice few countries have successfully managed any such policies on a large and consistent scale, and even where this is claimed it appears any money accrued may have gone to individuals associated with the political class instead of the coffers of the state.

            The fact remains: repellent pictures of sick smokers, or body parts of sick smokers, do appear on cigarette packets, aiming to reduce bad health among consumers. Since they are a form of advertising and since we have been repeatedly assured (by those who make money from it, but also by other experts, e.g. Paul Josef Goebbels) that advertising ‘works’, we accept the case. But then one must ask ‘Why only cigarettes? Why not pictures of the horrid results of consumption of tobacco’s noxious social twin, alcohol?’ The initial objection, that the result of the cigarette may be a spasm of wrenching coughing whereas consuming alcohol may lead on to a jolly party, is specious irrelevance. In the first place governments are interested in long-term effects (provided that the issue does not concern the next election), and, second, subversives will remark that there seem to be two different types of long-term alcohol consumption; one can lead to sitting on a narrow bench in the back room of a small pub in Cork at the age of 22, rocking slowly backwards and forwards, drunk to the point of incoherence at six in the evening, while the other sets you up as a rosy-faced white-haired old man with twinkling blue eyes, surrounded by twenty-somethings begging to hear about your adventures in times long ago. Common decency suggests we should make at least some attempt to shock those of the former tendency out of their licensed premisses. Perhaps then the warning pictures should somehow be attached not to the bottles and cans but to the drinkers themselves. Doubtless modern technology could make this possible, indeed very likely has already done so in the case of individuals suspected by the spooks of membership of UKIP or other sinister tendencies. This could prompt self-questioning every time they look into a mirror. However such an intrusion of the state into supposedly private life cannot be openly introduced in the present era of lip service to individual human rights.   A few years have to pass before what is technically possible turns into what has been judged necessary for the prevention of crime and the efficient functioning of the caring welfare state. So for the present we must allow the governments to perpetuate, by failing to state the contrary, the fiction that alcohol only causes problems when in contact with a steering wheel (a combination which is supposed to be avoided by erecting signs saying ‘Don’t drink and drive’ in Times New Roman and a schoolmasterly voice, in places where they can easily be seen, by an alert driver).

            The fact that special circumstances (I hope I will not be understood as referring specifically to the donations of the brewers to political parties) can restrict the use of pictures warning about troubles resulting from contact with psychoactive substances does not mean that efforts should not be made elsewhere. For instance, the car itself is a conspicuous element among the temptations luring misguided consumers towards ruinous outcomes, and here as so often reformers are up against the forces of darkness actively reinforcing the allure with meretricious counter-advertisements. Cars are claimed to have strange powers. Buy this car and not only will it make you younger and stronger, it will come with a languorous femme fatale strategically attached to the hood [subject to availability; alternative gender-neutral offer: young attractive partner and two children, all in perfect health and grinning like successful footballers]. Moreover you are implicitly assured you will find all other drivers – all other road users, in fact – have disappeared from the roads. There are drawbacks, admittedly; the immaculate highway along which you speed in smooth isolation, outdistancing a low-flying airliner breaking all rules of air traffic control, is evidently located in a magnificent but remote and uninhabited terrain, possibly on Spitzbergen. In the face of such blandishments, consumers certainly should be provided with pictorial warnings against the temptation to acquire a car. Many of the inconveniences are well known, from faulty windshield wipers to lengthy gaol terms but what is seldom fully realised is the size of the car’s contribution to stress in modern life. All the worry of buying and fuelling and maintaining and repairing the thing and of dealing with the various human enemies one meets in these battles; the frustration of the steady guerilla warfare needed to keep it insured and officially recognised by the state; the exploration day by day of the frontiers of irrational behaviour among other motorists on your way to work. Above all though, there is the anguish, almost never admitted consciously, of voluntarily shutting oneself into a metal box even smaller than the punishment cells the communists used in Czechoslavakia. Even for a ten minute trip to the shops it would bring a nervous breakdown if you allowed yourself to think about it. For the daily two-hour traffic jam, if handed down by a judge, it would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Of course the warning pictures on the car will have the advantage that they will be on the car itself unlike the allegedly seductive visual encouragements to buy the things. Themes for pictorial warning notices will obviously be legion, and perhaps inexpensive if cut-price deals can be cut with the sort of television channels that make disastrous car smashes a prominent feature of their broadcasts.

            The regrettable truth is that modern civilisation is replete with aspects threatening physical injury, financial loss, and moral decay to misguided consumers, and the UN has a duty to launch a world-wide multifaceted campaign of warnings against all these factors. It could begin by dealing with the food we eat, or, to be more precise, with unhealthy eating habits. For around 700 million on the planet there is a single unhealthy eating habit which is simply taking no food (almost invariably an involuntary condition) so in their case it is not easy to see where one might attach the warning notices; and in any case it is questionable whether many of those 700 million could truly be counted as bona fide members of the consumerat. But what worries many of the other 6.3 billion is the continuing struggle against obesity, and so the type of picture required is easily settled – some vast balloon of sweating humanity fighting its bulk into or out of an airline economy class seat would do nicely as a first example The laws about pictorial warnings in this category will have to be especially forceful, just to elbow their way past the existing mountains of colourful encouragements to believe that eating this or that package’s mixture of highly saturated fats and sugars and 21 kinds of chemical unknown to science until a few weeks ago will be good for consumers (and make them slimmer, and more beautiful, and charming; and if the consumer is a man his hair may grow back, too).

            But the truth is that we have done no more than hint at the vast array of threats to the innocent consumer. Many other scourges of society need to be fenced off behind warning notices – social media, muzak, bad grammar, football, computer passwords, gardening, and many more. A plethora of warnings is needed and naturally for some the devising of visual warnings will be easy, for others difficult. The time is ripe for a new Hieronymus Bosch to show what he can do.

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