Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Anti-Smoking's Monsters

Here's a column that never got printed or aired –

A recent Public Service Announcement on TV features a girl of about 12 lighting up a cigarette and then morphing into a wheezing, raspy-voiced woman with a hole in her throat.

Disturbing, yes. But for me, the real problem is the woman at the end looks and sounds an awful lot like me. And I've never smoked.

I'm a lifelong wheelchair user because of an inborn neuromuscular weakness called spinal muscular atrophy. Which, among other things, makes me especially susceptible to breathing difficulties.

The ad I'm referring to comes from California's anti-smoking effort, but similar ones appear elsewhere. No doubt their messages are clear and effective. And nobody is a stronger supporter of the cause than I am. But when I see them, I can't help feeling these images are a public DISservice to people like me because they exploit people's fear of disabilities.

I'm sure those involved mean no harm. They simply want to get their stories out there. The actress with the tracheotomy hole, Debi Austin, for example, says she likes to scare people about smoking. She's made a kind of career of it. But why choose this particular method for imparting this important message? Why not X-rays of cigarette-blackened lungs, say, or gravestones? Instead, these commercials paint severe physical disability as your worst nightmare. A fate worse than death itself.

It's not just the lung-cancer brigade that does it. An anti-drunk-driving ad several years ago showed a young man in a wheelchair as a similarly frightening symbol of the dire consequences of carelessness, stupidity, or hubris. Like Dorian Gray's portrait, these images reflect remorse, or punishment – horror stories even more real than the witches and goblins of old fairy tales, which were created to teach children not to talk to strangers or venture into shadowy places without adult supervision.

Yes, people with physical deformities have been exploited as cautionary totems for a long time. But aren't we supposed to be more enlightened and inclusive nowadays?

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to ban cautionary PSAs. Cigarettes are especially bad for those of us with breathing difficulties, who can suffer terribly just from being in the same room as a smoker. But that doesn't justify frightening kids away from people who look and/or function differently, just to educate them about very real dangers.

My two daughters learned Cigarettes Are Bad before they learned to ride a bike! There ARE ways. The old "this is your brain on drugs" ad taught a similar lesson without depicting drug users as grotesque creatures to shun and avoid.

So I'm hopeful. When I was a kid, in the 1960s and 70s, you didn't see mixed-race families on TV. Things can and do improve. Perhaps when my kids are my age, we'll recognize that real people – with warts and all – shouldn't induce fear. In fact, sometimes the most dangerous threats are the ones that aren't unattractive.

Hey! There's a message I could support! That would be a real Public Service.


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