It’s nearly 25 years since a larrikin campaign against tobacco advertising achieved its greatest victory
It’s a truth rarely acknowledged that Australia’s world-leading tobacco controls were inspired as much by satire and spray cans as any political vision.
The Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions (BUGA-UP) erupted on the scene in Sydney in the late 1970s, transforming glossy marketing messages into health warnings by “refacing” billboards and disrupting tobacco-sponsored events.
The BUGA-UP people were a loose crew of larrikins, artists and health professionals who were united only by frustration at slow tobacco reform and the dead hand of a supposedly self-regulating advertising industry.
Dunhill became Dunghill. Benson and Hedges morphed into Be on Edge. “Marble Row” tombstones appeared at the Australian Open tennis venue at Kooyong in Melbourne, in honour of Marlboro’s sponsorship.
“We thought the law would change very quickly, but the government is very good at doing nothing,” Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, who joined BUGA-UP in the early 1980s, told The Medical Republic.
Legend has it that BUGA-UP founder Bill Snow made the first strike by inscribing the word POISON on a cigarette billboard, quoting an Aboriginal friend who was dying of cancer.
Some BUGA-UP activists were incensed particularly by the question of advertising ethics, especially billboards on government property.
Dr Chesterfield-Evans was simply anti-tobacco. As a surgical registrar at Sydney’s North Shore Hospital, he had become “militantised” by seeing patients die from smoking-related cancers and cardiac disease.
A turning point came after a failed 20-hour struggle to keep a patient alive. He was told to go into the corridor to speak to the man’s wife and two daughters.
“Tears were streaming down their faces. They said, how did this happen, doctor? I said, oh, it was just one of those things. But I thought, bullshit. It was bloody Benson and Hedges.”
Soon after, he went to a meeting of the Non Smokers Movement and encountered members of BUGA-UP. They all seemed “entirely reasonable people”.
“So I started spraying,” he said. “I used to spray a few billboards on my way to radio calls (as a GP). I think I probably saved more lives with a spray can than I ever did with a scalpel.”
Geoff Coleman, a political economist and one of the original BUGA-UP founders, opened Dr Chesterfield-Evans’ eyes to the foolishness of framing the smoking debate as a clash between smokers and anti-smokers.
“Geoff said, this is bullshit, the smokers are the victims. Most of them would quit if they could,” Dr Chesterfield-Evans said.
“He said, (the status quo) is maintained by the tobacco industry paying the government to do nothing and advertising like hell, which then captures the media, because the media won’t slag its advertisers significantly.
“So it was the purchase of the media by advertising and the government by donation – and the government could do any rhetoric they liked, do any education they liked, but they mustn’t change the laws on smoke-free indoor areas and they mustn’t change the laws on advertising.
“Both sides of politics did that for years.”
Health warnings on cigarette packets in Australia were first mandated in 1973, followed by the banning of television and radio ads for tobacco products in 1976.
But tobacco ads still deluged the public everywhere else – in print media, cinemas, shops and at sporting events. Public awareness about the perils of smoking was making little headway.
“We felt it was like spitting into the wind of a very big gale, with corporate influences on consumption,” said Simon Chapman, Professor Emeritus of Public Health at Sydney University, who was working in education for the NSW health commission at the time.
The first smackdown for Big Tobacco – the removal of television comedian Paul Hogan as the face of Winfield cigarettes in 1980 – came from a protest by the Movement Against Unhealthy Products (MOP-UP), also formed in 1978 by Professor Chapman and like-minded colleagues.
“We found data showing that the Paul Hogan Show had huge appeal to children; it was their favourite program. At the same time, Paul Hogan was starring in the Winfield campaign, the single biggest, most successful advertising campaign in Australian history.”
MOP-UP’s complaint – that the advertising industry was bound by its own rules not to use anyone in tobacco advertising who had major appeal to children – was met with months of stony silence. Doggedly, the group kept sending registered letters and bringing more people into the argument.
Eventually the matter was referred to Sir Richard Kirby, chairman of the Advertising Standards Council, who ruled in 1980 that Hogan must go, 19 months after the complaint had been lodged.
“We had a few hundred dollars in the bank to put out a newsletter, and we were up against Rothmans, a major transnational tobacco company,” Professor Chapman said. “The David and Goliath metaphor was very appropriate.”
Meanwhile, the activists carefully avoided finger-wagging and took every opportunity to give tobacco sponsorship a bad name.
In a competition to find a new Australian Marlboro Man, BUGA-UP entered an elderly fellow who smoked through a tracheostomy. The sponsor effectively shut down the event for fear the entrant would show up.
They turned out in skeleton suits to a Rothmans contest for sports photography, and showered cigarette butts on a “technology as art” display featuring a Marlboro Formula One race car at the Art Gallery of NSW.
In Melbourne, the eminently respectable Marge White, the well-connected wife of a medical professor, became an avid solo spray painter and organiser of protests by medical students and artists.
“We got Philip Morris out of the (Australian Open) tennis in less than four years,” she said.
The Melbourne crew planted tombstones at the Kooyong tournament venue. During the 1984 men’s singles final, play was suspended while a sky writer flew over the courts leaving the message “welcome to cancer country”.
With similar attention to detail, they targeted Benson and Hedges’ sponsorship of the Australian Ballet.
“I used to say to the boys, when you do these things you must dress as the patrons dress. If you are going to the ballet, you must be in evening dress. So they would turn up looking drop-dead gorgeous, and we would give out brochures saying ‘Tobacco Sponsorship a Pain in the Arts’,” she said.
“People would take them into the theatre. They would never toss them because we had permission from Michael Leunig and Ron Tandberg to use their cartoons.”
The BUGA-UP and MOP-UP networks obtained and distributed copies of Death in the West, a 1976 British television documentary that transposed Marlboro ads and interviews with American cowboys with emphysema and other smoking-related illnesses, which had been suppressed by Philip Morris after one screening.
PAVING THE WAY
The arrests of some 30 activists, including Dr Chesterfield-Evans, Marge White and Melbourne radiologist Dr Jo Kavanagh, only spread the anti-smoking message wider.
In her defence, Dr Kavanagh, now a Melbourne GP, told the court she had amended a billboard opposite her home to read “Cancer Kills Kids” because she was angered by the effects of smoking on patients and their families.
“I said, in my work each day I would encounter many people suffering from lung cancer, emphysema and unnecessary early heart attacks. And I came home each night and saw this deeply offensive billboard, and I was increasingly outraged.”
She was let off with a small fine and a 12-month bond, and her story ended up on the front page of Melbourne newspaper The Age and a string of radio stations.
This July, it will be 25 years since Australians were finally spared bombardment by messages flogging cigarettes as sexy, glamorous or a pleasurable reward.
The Tobacco Control Act, which took effect in 1993, banned the last remnants of tobacco advertising, so now a whole generation has grown up without being prompted in the media or at sports events to think smoking is desirable, or even normal.
Smoking rates have plunged, with daily adult smokers hitting a new low of 12%, according to the latest figures. In 1945, 72% of Australian men smoked.
Importantly, since most long-term smokers tend to have taken up cigarettes in adolescence, smoking among 15 to 17-year-olds is at a historic low.
Professor Chapman says this success cannot be attributed to one element but many: the advertising bans, plain packaging, huge tax increases, and the spread of non-smoking venues.
But he has no doubt that BUGA-UP’s freestyle antics paved the way by capturing the public imagination.
“I think it absolutely radically transformed the public understanding of what the issue was about,” he said.
“BUGA-UP’s messages were not constrained in any way by bureaucratic niceties and worries about defamation or anything like that. They would just write whatever they wanted on billboards.
“They did it with amazing verve and humour and creativity. So many people saw it. It was probably as widely recognised as some of the (state-sponsored) Quit campaigns were.”
Dr Chesterfield-Evans, who later sat in the NSW upper house as a member of the Australian Democrats, relished the role of reporting on these strange events at international conferences on tobacco and health.
“We sent a message to the world,” he said. “No one in Canada or the United States had seen anything like it.”
The tobacco campaign veterans interviewed for this story noted parallels with current concerns over sugar, diabetes and the obesity epidemic.
“I think the government has thrown in the towel on food,” Dr Kavanagh said. “They are not taking control of problems with alcohol, gambling and takeaway food.”
Professor Chapman recalled the intense pushback from industry over the sponsorship and advertising battles, even after the health impacts of tobacco were well accepted.
“It became supremely easy to argue a case, but then it quickly became deeply political. The tobacco industry threw a lot of ordnance at us, running campaigns with leading sportsmen saying it would be the end of rugby league, the end of cricket, the end of tennis.”
Caught between powerful forces, however, policy makers had an easy fallback.
“The soft option in chronic disease control is to say, we need more education, we need more modules in school health education classes, or we need more campaigns and pamphlets and posters,” he added.