There was a full-page advert in one of the Sunday papers. In massive letters, the headline screamed: “STOP THE TOBACCO BILL.” My first thought was, sloppy grammar and even worse punctuation. Is Bill even the right person to stop the tobacco? More importantly, who the hell is Bill? My uncle? It can’t be him because he moved to Australia years ago. Also, he’s dead. My second thought was, hang on, this is a dog whistle. It’s a call to arms aimed at stopping people who don’t smoke from stopping people who do.
Was this even an advert? It felt more like a print version of a semi-literate homeless person shouting in my face, spittle flying everywhere.
At least with a homeless person, you can take him by the throat and shout back, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Adverts, you can’t do that. You can buy what they’re selling, reject it out of hand, or shoot yourself.
From the off, there didn’t seem to be an obvious product here. It was more sinister. We were being given an instruction. I don’t deal well with being told what to do, and yet I kept reading.
“If we don’t stop the new Tobacco Control Bill…” Ever since I was a child, I’ve been unable to resist a well-placed ellipsis. I had to know more. The suspense was killing me faster than two packs of Texan plain a day.
“You could be arrested for smoking a hubbly pipe or smoking in a club.” This was excellent news. I’m all for arrests. The only way we’re going to get crime under control is if all 60 million of us are locked up. Men, women and especially children. Poorly trained precognitive prosecutors will interrogate us to find out if we’ve been thinking of breaking any laws. Like Minority Report, but written by Leon Schuster with Steve Hofmeyr playing Tom Cruise.
What is this “hubbly pipe” of which they speak? Are they talking about hookahs? When I was growing up in Durban, I’d smoke something we called a hubbly bubbly. With friends, obviously. In our bedrooms, social, like. There weren’t really pipes involved. Just a 500ml plastic orange juice bottle half filled with water with a crudely fashioned tin foil affair to stick in the hole you’ve stabbed halfway down and then you’d suck on the fat end. Man, did we love that cherry-flavoured tobacco.
And that’s when the advert raised its voice again: “THREE MONTHS IN JAIL!” For the slow of thinking and our children who can’t read for meaning, the threat is accompanied by a photo of a grizzled policeman apprehending a young dude wearing a beanie. The cop has a hookah in one hand with what looks like a garden hose attached. It’s clearly not nighttime. What kind of maniac would take a giant shisha into what looks like a suburban cafe in the middle of the day and hit that thing instead of ordering a slice of carrot cake and a kombucha? He should absolutely be arrested.
But wait. There’s more. “You could be arrested for having cigarettes or snuff on display at your stall or shop. 10 YEARS IN JAIL!” This time, the image is of the same cop pushing an elderly woman into a police van. Sitting in the back of the vehicle is what looks like a white man, his arms outstretched as if he can’t wait to get his hands on this degenerate snuff-selling gogo. She is looking back at the cop, silently pleading to be released. She’ll be 80 when she’s finished doing time for snuff. Just long enough to hunt him down. With any luck, the cop’s name is Bill because I’d pay good money to direct that version of Kill Bill.
It goes on. “You could be arrested for smoking in your own home if it ‘disturbs’ your neighbours. 3 MONTHS IN JAIL!” The photo shows the cop, still wearing his body armour, handcuffing an elderly white woman in her lounge. She has curlers in her hair, a cigarette in one hand and a look on her face that says, “Get out of my house, jou vark. Do you have nothing better to do? Go arrest the real criminals.” Judging by her lounge, three months in Pollsmoor would be a nice break.
Also, this is South Africa. Everyone’s neighbours are disturbed. Mostly mentally. If they report you for smoking in your own home, you are legally entitled to burn their house down.
The advert tells us that all is not lost. “You have the power to stop the bill – and to stop consumers and retailers from going to jail.” Let’s be clear, here. All retailers, without exception, belong behind bars. It’s one of the more reasonable consequences of capitalism.
We are then instructed to: “Tell Parliament to Stop the Bill!” That should work. Our members of parliament have a long track record of obeying our every command. Someone tried to get parliament’s attention by setting fire to it and they still don’t listen.
In tiny letters at the bottom, it says, “Danger. Tobacco is addictive.” This isn’t an afterthought. It’s to comply with draconian legislation designed to interfere with tobacco companies’ constitutional right to kill people.
Hold on. Nowhere does it say who paid for the advert. Sure, it could be Martha who works at the Post Office and is concerned about her freedoms being violated. But if it’s Big Tobacco, all they’re worried about is their profit margins. They can kiss my ass that stopped smoking eight years ago.