29 January 2012

Lucky Luke and the Smoke Nazis

Banish Big Tobacco by all means, but give Lucky back his smokes.


I cheered the loudest when the tobacco ads were banned.

I chuckled when smokers were banished outside to hunker on street corners.

I nodded approvingly, if a little sadly, when the candy cigarettes of my youth became no more than a sweet memory.

But when I heard they'd confiscated Lucky Luke's smokes I was outraged. 

I may be an environmental health advocate and something of a smoke Nazi myself, but you just don't mess with the classics.

For those unacquainted with the good-natured, lonesome cowboy a long way from home, here he is:

At least, that's what he looked like when I first befriended him as a kid.

This is what he looks like now:

The original Lucky was an inveterate chain smoker; the only time he didn't have a cigarette between his lips was when he was rolling a new one from pouch tobacco, a process drawn over several frames in loving, humorous detail. It was intrinsic to his appeal, no question.

As his creator Morris said of Lucky's habit: “The cigarette is part of the character's profile, just like the pipe of Popeye.”

So much for that. You'll struggle to find the famous hand-rolled item in a new copy of Lucky Luke now: it's been airbrushed out and replaced with a dull, wholesome grass stalk. He did get to keep his gun, oddly enough.

The rationale for such censorship is that it protects tender minds from developing positive associations with smoking that could encourage them to adopt the habit later on. Popular culture depictions of smoking can glamorise it, or contribute to what anti-tobacco activists term “normalising” – we get used to seeing the cigarette as an ordinary everyday item, familiar and fairly innocuous.

We're all vulnerable to this form of brainwashing, the young especially. Research into the impact of tobacco depiction, which has focused mainly on movies but on comics and picture books too, shows it significantly raises smoking rates among  young adults, adolescents and even children as young as 10.

Pressure is brought to bear on film-makers and authors these days to keep youth-targeted material tobacco-free, however untruthfully that may reflect the reality of over a billion smokers world-wide.

But there's something disturbingly Orwellian about reaching back into the past to tinker with history, even if it is only a comic book character's, and even if it is for the supposed greater good. Are we trying to pretend to kids that cowboys in the old West – or those in 1946 for that matter, when Lucky Luke first appeared – didn't smoke?

Long before my young nephews could talk, let alone read, I happily mused how I'd introduce them to all my best-beloved children's books. Many of these, however, date from the ideologically dodgy mid-20th century or earlier, which poses a dilemma to the liberally-minded aunt.

Most of literature, including children's, is racist, sexist, and largely written by and about white males, much like human history.

The famous favourites abound with unhealthy examples. Captain Haddock is an alcoholic, let's face it. Winnie-the-Pooh and Obelix are unrepentently overweight, and who knows what exactly that caterpillar with the hookah was smoking in Alice. But they were all inspired creations of their times and we should cherish them as such, admonish them for their foolish ways now that we know better perhaps, but otherwise let them be.

We're meant to use the past to learn to stop repeating mistakes, not retrospectively censor it into some tidy, distorted version of the truth that won't offend politically correct 21st century sensibilities.

I'm going to keep my nephews' reading diet varied with plenty of modern books espousing enlightened values. But I'm not going to stop giving them those rich, imperfect, wonderful classics either, including my vintage copy about a mythical cowboy who could shoot faster than his own shadow, and didn't know, in his innocence, that cigarettes weren't cool.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, January 2012, Health24

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