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25 October 1999

It’s time the Queen ditched the fags

New Statesman Scotland - Royal warrants on cigarette packets lend smoking a fake respectabi

By George Rosie

Now that Philip Morris, the mighty monarch of the tobacco business, has decreed that cigarettes are likely to kill you, surely the time has come for our own dear royal family to do the same. As things stand, the Queen and her mum are among the fag-makers’ best friends. They contrive to help the world’s tobacco giants to sell the cigarettes that kill around 100,000 of their subjects every year. Most of these folk peg out in misery with clogged arteries, ruined airways and devastated lung-tissue. The medical men may go banging on about the lethal nature of cigarette smoke, but the Queen and the Queen Mother go on granting royal warrants to the tobacco giants to help them peddle their deadly wares.

Nor does Her Majesty seem to care that this runs counter to the policies of her own government. The cabinet has decided to ban cigarette advertising and tobacco sponsorship (most of it, anyway) in an effort to prevent so many of us wheezing our way to an early appointment at the crematorium, but the Queen and her mother appear not to have noticed. Although the cigarettes produced by Benson & Hedges are to lose their royal crests at the end of this year, those produced by Alfred Dunhill and John Player still sport the elaborate coats of arms of their respective households.

The tobacco barons love all this medieval flummery. Just as gangsters enjoy the company of aristocrats and showbiz glitterati, so cigarette makers relish royals. Royals mean social renown. Royals mean approval. Royals mean respectability. The coat of arms of one of the royal households – particularly the Queen’s – is one of the most potent symbols of the British state. It is a kind of constitutional laying on of hands. It somehow makes the dirty and dangerous business of cigarette smoking respectable.

And it seems to work. Royalism has long been one of the tobacco industry’s most successful marketing tools. It is a stratagem the companies deploy relentlessly. And those brands that have not been graced by genuine royal crests make up their own. The number of fag packets that are plastered with heraldic beasts (couchant, rampant and otherwise) is quite remarkable. This is a ploy that irritates – and occasionally infuriates – England’s College of Heralds, which is supposed to police such matters.

But the result is that the brand names of cigarettes are suffused with pseudo-royalism: Regal, Super Kings, Sovereign. And where they are not “royal” they are inclined either to be establishment – Embassy, Diplomat, Consulate – or to sport a kind of W1 snobbishness, such as Berkeley, Pall Mall, Piccadilly. (There is a very decent PhD for someone in the class-bound overtones of British cigarette marketing.) One way or another, it is all a long way from the dismal carcinogenic reality of cigarette smoke: tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, nitrogen monoxide, total aldehydes, acrolein, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide.

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In a way the Queen’s continuing support for the tobacco industry is surprising. It was cigarette smoking that saw off her grandfather, George V, and her father, George VI (who died at the age of 57). There is a story that the wretched George VI was so crippled by bunged-up arteries that he could hardly walk. And that during his autumn sojourns at Balmoral the red deer were driven within sight of the house so he could shoot them through the window. True or not, the tobacco barons have done the House of Windsor no favours.

Cigarette sponsorship also puts the Queen (and her mother) at odds with members of their own family. Prince Charles is known to be passionately anti-cigarette. The Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Gloucester, is patron of the English branch of the anti-smoking lobby Action on Smoking and Health (Ash). Gloucester’s maiden speech in the House of Lords, in 1984, was an attack on the tobacco trade. “On logical grounds,” he told their lordships, “there is a clear case for a total ban on such poison . . .” And he went on to compare the sales techniques of the cigarette companies with the 18th-century slave trade.

At the moment around 800 companies are entitled to display the arms of four royal households: those of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales. Royal warrant holders range from some of Britain’s industrial giants down to one-shop businesses in places such as Ballater, Braemar and Thurso, which supply goods or services to Balmoral or the Castle of Mey. Large and small, they are regulated by the Lord Chamberlain (currently Lord Camoys), whose Royal Household Tradesman’s Warrants Committee vets all applications. To qualify, a company must have supplied one or other of the four households for three successive years.

But what the Queen has granted she can take away. Royal warrants can -and often are – removed from undeserving companies. The official history of the Royal Warrant Holders’ Association makes it very clear that warrants are held “entirely subject to Her Majesty’s pleasure”. Surely it cannot be the Queen’s pleasure that her enormous prestige is being used to wreck the health of so many Britons?

So come on, Ma’am. Do your bit. Send for the Lord Chamberlain. Instruct him to strip the tobacco companies of their royal warrants. Get these ancient crests of yours (and your mother’s) off the cigarette packets. Tell the College of Heralds to come down hard on the bogus heraldry that adorns so many of the others. Distance royalty from the seedy practice which – since you inherited the throne 47 years ago – has probably killed more than four million of your loyal subjects.

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