Burning Desire: the Seduction of Smoking, TV review: A compelling investigation into Big Tobacco's secrets and lies


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The Independent Culture

Journalist Peter Taylor has been making documentaries about cigs, aka cancer sticks aka "the most lethal consumer product on the planet", for almost as long as we've known that smoking kills.

Since his documentaries Dying for a Fag (1975) and The Habit the Government Can't Break (1985) aired on television, the tobacco industry has entered a new phase – or at least that's what they'd like us to think. Kingsley Wheaton, the disarmingly open representative of British American Tobacco who was interviewed at length in the two-part Burning Desire: the Seduction of Smoking (BBC2), said they only want to help: "We are indeed the problem. That's no reason for us not to be part of the solution?"

You can't blame Taylor for being sceptical about this. He's been dealing with the tobacco industry's barefaced lies for decades – and he'd got the archive clips to prove it. He argued that the "harm reduction" tobacco companies are now engaging in, such as training shopkeepers to ask for ID, isn't proof that they are taking corporate responsibility seriously. It's just the latest marketing exercise designed to divert attention from what might be truly effective: namely plain packaging.

Plan packaging is not plain at all, but features grisly, graphic health warnings where the branding once was. Taylor travelled to Australia to see this new measure in action and it appeared to be working. Outdoorsy Aussie teens consider nothing as daggy as a smoking habit, but this cultural shift was not accomplished without a fight.

After plain packaging legislation was introduced in 2011, the industry's covert fightback tactics included "astro-turfing"(falsely presenting an industry-funded campaign as a grass-roots movement) and various specious arguments: that it would be ineffective, that it would damage the profits of local shopkeepers, and that it would lead to an increase in bootlegged cigarettes.

Taylor's depiction of this Manichaean war between (evil) Big Tobacco and (good) anti-smoking campaigners was compelling, but there was one interested party that doesn't quite fit his schema; the smokers themselves. We now know smokers usually start when they're young and gullible and that smoking disproportionately blights the poor, but that didn't fully explain how cigarettes continue to seduce so many. Despite – or perhaps because of – his immersion all things tobacco, Taylor seemed at a loss to explain it.