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Lighting up smoking debate


 Mad Men's Don Draper, played by John Hamm

Mad Men's Don Draper, played by John Hamm

Mad Men's Don Draper, played by John Hamm

IN the midst of government-sponsored portrayals of smokers as smelly, wrinkly, rotten-toothed, black-of-lung pariahs who deserve to be herded to the margins of society before being dunked in a vat of their own phlegm, something unexpected has happened.

Cigarette advertising has made a comeback on television. It's important to point out that this isn't cigarette advertising as we used to know it.

We haven't returned to the long-ago days when the Marlboro Man and his horse bestrode the American advertising landscape like a six-legged colossus, and when Rothmans were touted as the favoured choice of airline pilots – thus significantly increasing their chances of a heart attack mid-air.

Tobacco ads have been banned on Irish and UK television for decades. The British channels, however, recently began running ads for Vyper e-cigarettes, which deliver a nicotine hit without tobacco. Nonetheless, anti-smoking groups are still angry.

There hasn't been enough medical and scientific research, they say, into whether e-cigarettes pose health risks of their own (they're probably right about that).

Also, they fear the sight of someone on TV puffing on an electronic ciggie, albeit one that emits clouds of vapour rather than smoke, represents a backslide in the fight to stub out smoking.

If e-cigarette ads reglamourise smoking, young viewers in particular might be tempted to try the real thing. Disregarding how you feel about this contentious argument and its tendency to patronise a generation more acutely aware of the dangers of smoking than any that came before it, the issue of lighting up on television has long been clouded in myth.

Cigarette advertising may have vanished from our screens, yet smoking in TV dramas has never really gone away. The most obvious modern example is Mad Men, famed as much for Don Draper's near-ceaseless smoking (in reality, harmless herbal cigarettes) as for its fine acting, faultless period flavour and elegant scripts.

Even the most virulent anti-smoking activist can't argue that Mad Men is an accurate depiction of the decades in which it's set, the 1950s and 60s, a time when people cheerfully smoked their heads off.

So, at least in that one respect, is RTE1's new 50s-set drama Quirke. Gabriel Byrne's pathologist hero filled so many ashtrays to overflowing during the first two episodes, it's a wonder he's not on his own mortuary slab already. It's just a pity little else about the leaden Quirke rings true.

These are exceptions; period drama tends to be the genre that shies away most from showing characters smoking. I don't think I've every seen anyone light up a cigarette in Foyle's War or Endeavour, despite them being set in, respectively, the 1940s and the 60s, when every pub, bingo hall, cinema and bus were engulfed in a fug of smoke.

You can't revise history by writing smoking out of it. And yet, you're still more likely these days to see smoking in contemporary dramas.

In Sky Atlantic's fabulous new series True Detective, strange, troubled cop Rust Cohle chain-smokes during the scenes set in 2012.

In the second season of House of Cards, Frank Underwood and his wife Claire, having bested their adversaries once again, share what feels like a post-coital cigarette, minus the coitus.

True Detective goes out after the 9pm watershed, when the rules on what is and isn't acceptable in a drama are more relaxed, while House of Cards is available only on Netflix. So it's slightly surprising to discover that the most frequent smokers on television are the characters in soap operas, which are broadcast at a time when viewers of all ages are watching.

I can't vouch for Emmerdale or Fair City because I rarely watch either of them, but characters in EastEnders are regularly seen smoking. Soap's undisputed queen of the filter tip and hacking cough is, however, Coronation Street's Deirdre Barlow, who's forever sucking away the trials of her life on a cigarette.

It's nice to see someone on TV swimming against the tide of political correctness and nannyism by carrying a tiny torch for smokers, even if it is a low- tar one.