Writers, Artists, Creativity and Smoking 

By Olayinka Oyegbile

Smoking I find the most ridiculous of all the varieties of human behaviour and practically the only one that is entirely against nature. Can you imagine a cow or any animal taking a mouthful of smouldering straw then breathing in the smoke and blowing it out through its nostrils? — Ian Fleming

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In years past, it was common to see pictures of writers, artists, musicians and others involved in the creative industry swirled around by smoke, cigarette butts and, most especially, by smoking pipes. It was the iconoclastic portraiture of being creative.

According to the myth, to be creative and talented you had to be a smoker and have a pipe planted between your lips or stick of cigarette between your fingers. I remember going through glossy magazines of those days and seeing pictures of writers, musicians and most creative souls that we admired then clutching fat sticks of cigarettes, cigars, or a ‘beautiful’ pipe dangling down their lips. It was the quintessential picture of creativity! It was as if you couldn’t be creative if you didn’t smoke or draw a pipe.

It was common to see pictures of big and successful American writers such as William Faulkner sitting at their writing desks with a stick of cigarette dangling between his fingers, or a smoking pipe on the lips with smoke wafting around him in a study lined with books. Take a look at another page, you are confronted with the picture of the award-winning German writer Gunter Grass with a fat smoking pipe oozing out thick smoke. Where did all this come from? Of course, it was the illusion of the time to say great men and women had to smoke to be creative and successful.

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Everyone likes creativity and wishes to be listed among creative souls, so many were led into smoking with the power of advertising and using what advertisers call ‘testimonial variety’ where prominent artists, writers, figures etc are used to show that if you do as they do, you’ll turn out to be like them.


The common advert of a rider on a horse galloping along riverbanks and oozing smoke following his trail was common. It was part of the fantasy and make-believe of the time. The life of a smoker as a successful entrepreneur, doctors and those in the medical profession were not exempted. When a doctor was confronted with a tough medical procedure to perform, he picked a stick of cigarette to ‘cool down or calm his never’ even with medical evidence that he knew staring him in the face that smoking was dangerous.

Let me bring it back home a bit. Remember the common picture of that writer and iconic environmental campaigner the late Ken Saro-Wiwa with his pipe planted between his lips? It was perhaps his most prominent and often used picture in the media then. A subtle advertisement for the smoking industry that a prominent environmental campaigner and writer smoked the pipe! There was also that common one of Africa’s greatest writers and filmmakers Sembene Ousmane of Senegal, Syl Cheney-Coker, the Sierra Leonian poet and writer and their ever-present smoking pipes.

Leaving the realm of writers, remember also how the film industry has been used to promote smoking as an act of courage or a way to ‘cool down or calm tension’. When an actor is faced with any troubling moment, what does he do next? He turns to light a stick of cigarette or pulls out his pipe and smokes.

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Bollywood, the Indian movie industry and its Hollywood counterpart have for years made films with this fallacy. Many Nigerian youths have therefore fallen for this thinking it was something worthwhile. However, recent medical research has proven that smoking, rather than being ‘cool or calm’, has contributed to the spread of the smoking culture.

 For years this has been the narrative. Even doctors are not spared. The smoking trail has been glamourized as a way to solve pressing problems. However, it has become clear now that these are not really the issues because as the saying goes, cutting off the head is not a solution to a headache!

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 The medium of film has been used by the tobacco industry to push the smoking agenda. The cinema just like any form of art is a very powerful propaganda tool. It is therefore important to focus attention on this sector to curb the spread of smoking in society. The youth who are mostly fans of the cinema are impressionable and must be protected from this undue influence hence the need for the Smoke-free Nollywood campaign.

 The campaign is aimed at working with film writers, producers, directors and all those in the industry to stop the glamorisation of this vice and focus on better messages in their films. The art sector is a powerful tool of mobilisation and it is important to use this medium rightly.

Dr. Oyegbile, an award-winning journalist, playwright and short story writer, is a Fellow of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Public Health Reporting and the American Cancer Society (ACS). Until recently, Oyegbile was Deputy Editor, The Nation on Sunday. He can be reached via yinka2005@gmail.com

Joshua Okoria

Joshua Okoria is a Lagos based multi-skilled journalist covering the maritime industry. His ICT and graphic design skills makes him a resourceful person in any modern newsroom. He read mass communication at the Olabisi Onabanjo University and has sharpened his knowledge in media practice from several other short courses. 07030562600, hubitokoria@gmail.com

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