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The issue of actors being made to smoke on stage or screen is not a new one, but compared to the “Sex and the City” story above, British actor Paul Eddington had more luck 30 years ago. Although he was best known worldwide for his role as Jim Hacker, the hapless minister, later prime minister in the 1980s British television comedy series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”, Eddington first rose to fame a decade earlier in a British sitcom called “The Good Life”. This featured two couples, neighbours, one relatively successful and wealthy, the other doing less well in life. Eddington played the husband of the successful couple, and his screen character was a smoker. But being an intelligent, thoughtful man with a strong social conscience, and realising how inappropriate it was to portray smoking as part of the good life, he asked the writer whether a scene or two could be inserted about him giving up the habit. To his pleasant surprise, the writer immediately agreed with him, and told him simply not to smoke again in the part. It was not even necessary to refer to it, he said; from then on, the character would simply be a non-smoker.
Eddington, a Quaker, had a long history of quiet involvement with important causes. When necessary, he was prepared to be a little less quiet, as when he publicly resigned in protest from the board of trustees of the Bristol Old Vic theatre company after it refused to end sponsorship from Wills Tobacco, which had a large factory in the city. He was a founder of a high profile group opposing tobacco sponsorship of the arts, and helped Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) on several occasions. Sadly, he did not live to see the UK’s ad ban—he died of a rare form of skin cancer in 1995—but he inspired and enlivened ASH’s work towards it.
When the “Yes, Prime Minister” team was considering topics for future episodes, Eddington suggested they cover the tobacco epidemic, and telephoned ASH to tell them to expect a call from the writers. The show’s central character, James Hacker MP, thought he was in charge of things but in reality was all too dependent on and manipulated by civil servants, led by the scheming Sir Humphrey Appleby. Sir Humphrey, whose agenda was usually somewhat different from that of his political master, was not immune to being manipulated himself, so the series was a natural for taking a satirical look at one of the greatest scandals of political negligence of our time.
The writers set to work on their research, including discussions with key public health people, to learn what went on behind the scenes to try to ensure that cigarette sales continued to flourish undisturbed. The ensuing episode, “The Smokescreen”, broadcast in 1986, was as hard hitting as it was hilarious, and can still be found in use as an entertaining teaching aid in discerning schools of public health the world over. At one point, in a robust defence of inaction encompassing many of the classic tobacco industry arguments and sophistries, Sir Humphrey pleaded with Hacker to recognise the economic heroism of smokers whose tobacco tax helped fund the health service, but whose early deaths relieved the state from having to pay their pensions: “We are saving many more lives than we otherwise could because of those smokers who voluntarily lay down their lives for their friends.” Incredible though it now seems, it was but a modest paraphrase of what some industry briefed politicians were saying at the time.