Tobacco has thrived on the use of glamorous images. Now the creative élite is hitting back

Smoking, the tobacco giants would have us believe, remains fashionable. But soon, stubbing it out may become the height of cool. The concept, as is often the case in modern art, came from Damien Hirst.

Smoking, the tobacco giants would have us believe, remains fashionable. But soon, stubbing it out may become the height of cool. The concept, as is often the case in modern art, came from Damien Hirst.

Last year, Hirst made a tidy sum by producing a limited edition design for Camel cigarettes. Now, the anti-smoking lobby, having seen the wonders a little artistic street-cred can do for the tobacco industry, has decided to beat the cigarette barons at their own game.

An exhibition will open in London next month displaying the work of 20 contemporary artists commissioned to produce images to encourage people to give up. The pictures are published today in The Independent on Sunday for the first time.

The project has been organised by the London-based Galatea art consultants on behalf of the World Health Organisation, which will use the images to launch a new anti-smoking campaign.

The artists were chosen because of their views on smoking. Fourteen of them do not smoke, or are ex-smokers. The rest are keen to kick the habit. Their artistic merit is reflected in the decision to exhibit them at London's Whitechapel Gallery from 22 November for two days. Posters of the works will be distributed to Britain's 10,000 GP surgeries and most pharmacies next month, and will later be circulated in France, Germany and Poland.

The WHO estimates that the posters will be seen by 30 million people and aims to help up to 80,000 smokers in the four countries to quit.

Among the artists is Gavin Turk, who has decided that the butt should stop with fashion-forming artists. Turk's poster - a monkey holding a cigarette in its paw - carries a distinctly un-Cool Britannia message: smoking is bad for you. Turk, who smoked for 12 years before quitting six years ago when his first son was born, was sympathetic to the aims of the project. "It was horrible trying to give up," he said. "I no longer think on an hourly basis about smoking, but I do look at people smoking and wish I could have one."

Others artists include Miroslaw Balka, an installation artist from Poland, one of Europe's most nicotinous countries. In typically sombre mood, Balka's poster features an empty child's stool on a mound of cigarette butts. Then there is a video by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, a French man. Blue Canyon offers an alternative to Marlboro Country for would-be non-smokers: a gently rolling place where no check-shirted cowboy ever lassoed a steer or coughed his lungs up.

Thomas Ruff, a Düsseldorf-based photographer and another member of the international young artist élite, has met the criteria of being both witty and subtle. Picking up on the style of old-fashioned health programmes, his work shows a boy beaming at his newly non-smoking father as though on a Soviet Realist poster.

All the posters represent a radical departure from the traditional stark anti-smoking images of test tubes full of tar and the damage smoking does to organs. The posters will carry the message "If you want to stop smoking, ask how", to encourage smokers to visit their GPs for advice on quitting.

The artists have collectively been paid £150,000 - half the price their works would fetch on the open market. This is a small sum compared to the £100m tobacco giants spend on advertising every year - including the artists' collection by cigarette maker RJ Reynolds that Hirst signed up for.

"Tobacco is so effective at manipulating images such as waterfalls and healthy, athletic lifestyles that don't relate to the reality of their project," says Dr Franklin Apfel, of the WHO. "We're looking to break that cycle of misrepresentation by using the same media."

According to Ash, the anti-smoking campaign group, 12.1 million adults in the UK smoke cigarettes, including 29 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women. Almost as many young people are taking up smoking as before - 450 children start smoking every day - though more established smokers are quitting. Every year, 120,000 smokers in the UK die as a result of their habit. Half of all regular smokers will eventually be killed by their habit, and the annual cost to the NHS of treating people for smoking-related diseases is £1.5bn.

"The traditional 'don't smoke' message can be a bit patronising and a bit dull," said Amanda Sandford, a spokeswoman for Ash. "There is uncertainty over whether the really nasty images are effective. Some smokers just turn a blind eye to them. The images are more likely to turn them off looking at the picture than turn them off smoking."

Allen Carr, whose best-selling book The Easy Way to Give Up Smoking is a bible for ex-smokers, agreed the anti-health message was too heavy-handed. "I knew smoking was killing me, but that didn't stop me," he says.

"I realised it was smoking that created the panic feeling that made me need a cigarette. You have to encourage people to get away from the belief that there's pleasure to be had in smoking."