“What better commodity could there be than a product that produces nothing but an insatiable desire for itself ?” Evidently, the product of the tobacco industry is not the cigarette, but the smoker.
BY FRANK LLOYD TIONGSON
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 36, October 14-20, 2007
I am constantly hitting the wrong keys in the keyboard because of trembling hands. I cannot even move the mouse accurately in the perpetual typing-deleting that lies behind the construction of this paragraph.
Before writing this piece, three cigarettes were consumed. Most likely, before the next paragraph, I would have smoked another one.
So there goes another cigarette. I am still lightheaded. By now, the nicotine must have completed its course in my bloodstream. They call this state “vertigo.” It is such state that I have always substituted to soberness
– through a cheaper, more accessible, and most of all, legal, medium which is cigarette smoking. It gives me a reason not to be compelled to stick to time constraints and other small demands.
During those brief moments with a cigarette in hand, time and reason become distorted – breathers, so to speak.
I have met a lot of people because of this habit. I learned to smoke during my first few months in UP, fresh from a clean, healthy high school lifestyle. For smokers, it is elementary to initiate a conversation and find occasions to meet. One just needs to ask for a light or a spare cigarette. It is for this reason that most of my friends are smokers.
Our world in the campus, however, is about to become smaller. Recently, the UP administration has formalized a policy that enforces a strict smoking ban that comes with the prohibition of its sale and advertising within the UP system. The ban, according to the memorandum, is in accordance with Republic Act 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003. Implementing guidelines are yet to be formulated by the local administrations headed by the chancellor..
That spells the end of the trail of smoke following me on the way to class. As long as I am inside the university premises, I will have to stay calm without the assistance of chemical compounds.
Not that the imperatives to quit smoking are not compelling enough. Scientifically, politically, morally, smoking is bad. The severe health risks that come with cigarette smoking are posed not only to the smoker, but also to the people in his/ her vicinity. Environmentalists have also assailed smokers for their immense contribution to air pollution, aside from their propensity to litter cigarette butts everywhere. It is said that if smoking was never invented, lung cancer would be a rare ailment since around 90 percent of the world’s lung cancer patients are smokers. Thousands, moreover, die every second because of smoking-related diseases.
The sheer indifference with which I process all these facts amazes me, a card-carrying addict. I light one as soon as I wake up in the morning and finish eating, and currently use it to punctuate almost every paragraph of this article.
According to Mark Nichter, an anthropology professor from the University of Arizona, smoking can be seen as a code of meaning or a semiotic. He explained that cigarettes “serve as symbols as well as props that allow people to imagine as well as act out constantly varying roles on the stage of everyday life.” After all, consumption is one of the primary ways we structure time in a consumer society. Consumption events punctuate the flow of everyday life as we move from school or work to leisure time, according to Nichter.
Smoking as a semiotic can be further understood in terms of the signifiers proffered by popular culture. In literature, Sherlock Holmes has been depicted as a pipe-smoking sleuth who could solve crimes using deductive reasoning.
The quintessential first-world rebel, as exemplified by James Dean, has also been rendered as perpetually smoking cigarettes. A myriad of stereotypes can be recalled: the seductress, the rebel without a cause, the coffee shop intellectual, the power-broker, and a host of others.
Undermining the fetish
Cigarette smoking is, thus, a classic case of the promotion of a product not just through advertising, but its portrayal in media and society in general as well. In terms of marketing strategies, tobacco companies have hailed smoking not only as a means to “look cool,” but also, ironically, as a form of rebellion “against the establishment.” The cited industry has long banked on individual free will and expression as a selling point.
There are no complex mathematical formulations involved to figure out that there is absolutely no material gain in smoking. I, for one, have already uselessly spent around P100, 000 ($2,270 at an exchange rate of $1=P44.05) on cigarettes, consuming around a pack per day, in a span of seven years as a smoker. It is not, therefore, the irrational desire for a product in a consumer society that is drawn out. What can be highlighted is the capacity of capitalism to promote an overall “culture of desire.”
As pointed out by critic Avital Ronell, “it is only about producing a need for itself.” Smoking, thus, is the ultimate commodity fetish. Ronell then poses a rhetorical question: “What better commodity could there be than a product that produces nothing but an insatiable desire for itself ?” Evidently, the product of the tobacco industry is not the cigarette, but the smoker.
Conversely, it is not only the smoker who has become hooked to smoking. The tobacco industry continues to generate colossal profits for itself and billions in terms of revenues for the government, which, in turn condones the large-scale production of cigarettes. While it may leave a temporary breathing space for non-smokers, a selective smoking ban borders on futility as long as tobacco companies remain hooked to profit.
Exactly 18 cigarettes have been consumed in the making of this article. My head now feels heavy; there is a bitter taste in my mouth. I could have finished this article two hours earlier if I did not pause every few minutes for a smoke.
I am not wary of a smoking ban. After all, a few steps away from a prohibited space are cigarette vendors who will gladly oblige my addiction for a few pesos. I might be thinking of quitting, but I’m hooked. The choice has already been made for me. Philippine Collegian/(Bulatlat.com)
Nichter, Mark. “Smoking: what does culture have to do with it?”
Goldfarb, David. “The Decadentism of Theory: Addiction and Postmodernism”