April 08, 2020

Joe Camel was only a scapegoat

When I opened my copy of Entertainment Weekly this week, I found myself staring at a picture of a gorgeous woman wearing next to nothing in a swimming pool. It wasn’t unsual. Nor was the hard smack on the arm I received from my wife for looking at the picture too long.

As I recovered from the blow, however, I realized this picture was a new advertisement for the most odious of products, Camel cigarettes, and I started to chuckle at the irony of the caption that read, “What you’re looking for.”

A lungful of carcinogenic fumes is supposedly what we’re looking for, but the woman is what the company knows we are hoping to find. The irony is that if this woman is indeed what you’re looking for, the last thing you want to do is smoke because — are you listening guys? — cigarettes can cause impotence.

I’m sure all the people who labored to bring an end to the reign of the notorious, phallic Joe Camel are congraulating themselves on their victory. Hooray for the good guys. Joe was a disgrace. He obviously appealed to children and teen-agers.

Then again, so does the half-naked woman. While your average teen-age male might think Joe Camel is a pretty cool-looking dude, his eyes are actually going to be spotwelded to this woman’s picture as soon as the page is turned.

I would bet that Camel is actually going to sell more cigarettes with the half-naked woman that it ever could with inadequate Joe. Unlike Joe, this ad has almost universal appeal. Males from 5 to 100 will like it and many women will want to emulate that woman in the pool.

Why is it that the solutions people tend to rally behind never seem to solve the actual problem? Probably because people focus on the wrong part of the problem. We feel like we have to do something, but lack the control to eradicate the mess altogether, so we come up with some smaller, more manageable task.

Joe Camel was a scapegoat, and he was easy to hang. Those who crusaded against him got to feel good about themselves, and Camel had probably already come up with the oh-so-original naked chick idea.

The question is, what makes kids want to smoke? The scientific answer is that cigarettes contain nicotine which stimulates the production of a chemical called dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, in turn, products pleasurable sensations for the smoker. The idiotic answer is Joe Camel.

Being a reformed smoker, I have a little bit of perspective on this. I think nicotine is what makes people continue to smoke after they’ve awakened to the fact that this habit isn’t very cool. I think Joe Camel is what makes some people choose to smoke Camels instead of Marlboros.

It’s not the nicotine at first, however. I remember smoking my first cigarette in the woods behind my house when I was just 15. It was fun opening up my pack of goodies and pulling out the cigarette and holding it in my lips like a movie star.

It wasn’t so fun feeling smoke burn it way down my throat, making me want to vomit. At that point nictoine really wasn’t doing much for me. The whole experience was awful.

But I kept trying until one day smoke went down smoothly, and a numb tingling feeling went through my body. That was an accomplishment for me.

So, what makes 15-year-old kis struggle through the painful first few cigarettes before they actually start to enjoy the wawy it feels?

It might be Bruce Willis, sucking in smoke as he cocks his nine-millimeter in “Die Hard,” or Leonardo DiCaprio holding the smoldering cigarette loosely in one hand while he writes with the other in “Romeo and Juliet.” Maybe it’s John Travolta and Uma Thurman chain-msoking home rolls in “Pulp Fiction.” These are the people who teen-agers really looking up to, not Joe Camel.

Now obviously it wouldn’t make much sense to take all of the smoking scenes out of a movie like “Trainspotting” in which all of the principal characters are heroin addicts. However, would it take anything away from a film like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” if Julie Roberts’ character didn’t smoke? I don’t think so.

We tend to seek simple solutions to complicated problems. One example that leaps to mind is the belief that TV ratings will save our children from raunchy television. It’s a manageable goal that can be achieved in a short time. Of course, without parental supervision it won’t do a bit of good.

The same is true of the cigarette issue. Even though Joe Camel has gone to that great smoker’s lounge in the sky, the war on teen smoking isn’t over. In fact, the enemy is getting stronger and better looking.

Daniel J. Dunkle lives in Bangor.

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