BENSON

A meme is popularly defined as an “element of culture or behaviour that may be passed from one person to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation”.

The concept was coined by famous British scientist Richard Dawkins.

On Friday 31 May the World Health Organisation (WHO) celebrates World No Tobacco Day, warning that smoking kills up to 5.6 million people every year.

Our own national health minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, recently announced government plans to tighten South Africa’s already strict tobacco and smoking legislation, seeking to completely prohibit what he called the “familiar sight” of smokers gathering outside of buildings to “pollute the air around them”.

The minister seems to buy in to the idea of meme’s, even if unwittingly.

He has not only been consistently pushing for legislation that will prevent smoking in public, but also for a complete black-out on any form of marketing around tobacco products.

A maximum fine of R100 000 for smoking less than 10 meters from the entrance of a building is already in place, and the minister also hopes to emulate laws already enforced in Australia and New Zealand where cigarettes are sold only in plain, unbranded packaging.

The minister draws his thinking from the work of international behavioural scientists, whose studies have found that the less children and young adults observed people smoking and the less the habit was “glamorised” by fancy marketing, the fewer of these age-groups would start smoking.

Despite the minister’s and government’s determined campaign against tobacco products, South Africans continue to puff away.

Research has shown that 7.7 million South Africans smoke 11.4 cigarettes a day. In total, that amounts 29 billion cigarette sticks a year.

The figure, however, only covers the legal tobacco trade. The South African Revenue Services (SARS) claims it loses up R4.5 billion in tax revenue to illicit cigarette trade every year.

South African’s are really puffing away, and Wits Campus is no different. Smokers can be seen around campus huddled in intimate groups enjoying cigarettes, and more recently hookah pipes.

Pharmacology honours student Cassandra Geldenhuys said she had started smoking because both her parents were smokers and because it “looked decent”.

“There’s one road to your lungs, you might as well tar it,” Geldenhuys joked.

A fellow Pharmacology student, who asked not to be named in case her mother read the paper, said she stared smoking when she was 12 years-old.

“I really liked the look of smoking and I forced myself to do it,” she said.

She said she had heard about the new regulations, and had been threatened with a R1 500 fine while smoking outside a Wimpy by the manger.

She wondered why it was such big deal. “In movies in the 80s you would see everyone smoking”, she said.

Another Witsie, a 2nd year medical student, said he started smoking in high school for “social acceptance”.

That both smokers and those pushing for tougher laws against smoking seem to consider the habit something taken up through imitation, lends some credibility to the idea of smoking as “cultural meme”.

Related information:

World No Tobacco Day on Twitter