The National Preventative Health Taskforce’s proposal to plain package cigarettes in shops has stirred debate about whether colourful packs promote teenage smoking. The tobacco industry has predictably launched an ad campaign against plain packaging. While this tussle between health professionals and the tobacco industry unfolds, another, less overt, tobacco industry-funded TV campaign is getting air time on youth-oriented day-time TV every day.

Picture this: a TV show featuring a snappily attired, besuited advertising executive indulging in a little witty repartee with a female co-worker in a Madison Avenue office. He languidly draws on his cigarette, blowing some smoke nonchalantly in her direction. Running one hand through his Brylcreemed mane, fashionable in its day, he stubs out the cig with the other and immediately reached for another gasper from within the packet. Smoking indoors was perfectly acceptable in New York in the 1960s. How times have changed.

This wasn’t dapper Don Draper in highly acclaimed adult drama Mad Men though; it was Darrin Stephens — advertising exec at fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency McMann and Tate and husband of good witch Samantha — in comedy show Bewitched and it’s somewhat jarring, in this more health conscious era, to see smoking depicted so prominently in a daytime TV show, especially on Channel Nine-owned multichannel GO!, the self-proclaimed channel for “all those young or young-at-heart”.

Bewitched isn’t the only GO! show featuring a pack an episode characters furiously smoking between lines. Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes and Here’s Lucy are also in thrall to the nicotine dream. Get Smart’s Maxwell Smart, for example, even lights up in the cone of silence.

Social mores of the time is one reason for this but there is another. In an advertising tactic that Don Draper would be proud of, the tobacco industry, “through manipulation of the mass media”, sponsored these TV shows when they originally aired and as part of the deal, tobacco companies provided cigarettes to television actors and programs in order to encourage use of their brands on screen in a form of product promotion known as “product placement” or “embedded advertising”. It truly is the advertising campaign that, even now, keeps on running.

ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) Australia CEO Anne Jones notes “the tobacco industry targeted the film industry and celebrities to glamorise smoking during this period” and while “we don’t recommend air brushing history, perhaps a good compromise is to show a truthful smoking advert at beginning of these re-runs to counter the positive images of smoking in films from the era of imbedded smoking adverts.”

Channel 9 and GO! did not respond to requests for comment.

GO! is not the only TV station filling its schedules with US sitcom repeats; shows that originally were partly funded by the tobacco industry. As free-to-air digital multichannels proliferate with a need for cheap content to air, watching children and indeed smokers who are trying to quit will be exposed to more of these subtle pro-smoking messages.

Actor Dick York — who played Darrin Stephens in Bewitched — died at the age of 63 in 1992 of emphysema due to lung cancer caused by his heaving smoking habit, showing just some of the damage done by this clever piece of tobacco industry advertising magic.

Peter Fray

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