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Where there's smoke

October 4, 2003

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... there's usually controversy. And it's no different in the movies. Here, a debate on whether cigarettes should be banned in films.


To boost their profits, tobacco companies rely on a tried and tested platform for their products: the movies. In the 1940s and '50s, millions lit up their first cigarette while watching Bogie or Bette Davis. The smoke may since have been banished from the back row, but the cigarette still looms large on screen.

The strategy still works. We know that children whose favourite movie stars smoke on screen are more likely to smoke themselves. But does this really mean that smoking in movies can encourage a child to take up the habit? There is now strong evidence that it can. A study recently published in The Lancet followed non-smoking youngsters, aged 11 to 15. It found that the more times a youngster saw smoking on screen, the more likely they were to begin smoking.

When actors smoke in films, they do a better job than billboards at advertising cigarettes. They are showing children that it is cool to smoke. That's why the tobacco companies have been willing to pay actors to smoke on screen. In 1983, Brown & Williamson paid 320,000 to Sylvester Stallone to smoke its cigarettes in five films, including Rambo.

Product placement is a subtle and powerful form of tobacco promotion. And it is particularly effective on young people. Research shows that the under-18s are most likely to recall tobacco products used in movies. That's why Philip Morris supplied free cigarettes to film productions including the PG-rated Grease, The Muppet Movie and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Widespread smoking in the movies teaches young people how to smoke. It teaches them that they can emulate movie stars by smoking. It gives the false impression that most people accept smoking and second-hand smoke.

What the films don't show is the reality of smoking: hacking cough, bad breath and stained fingers. And they don't even touch on what smoking can lead to: sexual impotence, lung cancer, heart attack, respiratory problems, infertility - the list goes on. Most smoking in films has nothing to do with artistic freedom and everything to do with clever marketing.

In the real world, smokers tend to be poor and less educated. In the movies, the powerful and successful smoke the most. In the real world, smoking kills people and smokers' families suffer while the tobacco industry accumulates billions in profits. In the real world, second-hand smoke harms non-smokers. Cinema's love affair with tobacco has claimed countless lives, not least those of its stars. It's time that Hollywood's fatal attraction with cigarettes was stubbed out.

Sinead Jones, director of the British Medical Association's Tobacco Control Resource Centre.


If you rang my late colleague Alexander Walker, film critic of The London Evening Standard newspaper, when he was out, the words on the answering machine were: "And, remember, smoking is the slow way to suicide." He objected to films in which there was too much puffing, and he wouldn't have thanked me for defending the practice, even though he knew I was a smoker.

But I do defend it, largely because of what the next step from the censorship brigade is likely to be: booze or drunkenness should be banned from movies. And what about guns? Should we not censor them, too? Murder is a pretty bad crime, so perhaps we should frown on that, too, thus emasculating most Hollywood films straightaway.

Smoking is indeed a bad and dangerous habit and I am absolutely with the proposal that cigarette companies should be discouraged from placing their products in films. Too much of that goes on already. But to pretend that no one smokes is another matter altogether.

My second and perhaps better argument is that I have never been convinced that films cause the young, or indeed any of us, to imitate those in them. If they did, I'd have been sent to jail long ago. I have sat through so many enormities that even a lily-white liberal like myself has sometimes wondered what the censor was doing passing them for general viewing. Smoking? That's the least of it. And yet, here I am, a veteran of it all, and still pure as the driven slush.

I remember defence counsels telling juries at the time of Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, in which a tramp was set alight by Malcolm McDowell and his friends, that their clients would never have committed a similar crime if they had not seen the film. Speciousness has never before risen to such heights, and it continues today. "Retrograde" films or videos (of which there are plenty) have been accused of everything under the sun, sometimes by myself. But nothing has ever been proven, and certainly not conclusively.

So I would be very wary of telling people what to do and what not to do via the movies. Better simply to tell them what to see and what not to see in the hope that they can make up their minds for themselves with a little pressure from us critics. The idea that Chicago is a dangerous film because Catherine Zeta-Jones has a cigarette in her mouth seems decidedly silly to me. I wish I could stop smoking, that's for sure. But I'm damned if it would make any difference if there was no smoking on film. Sorry, Alex, my old friend. Hold on, I'll put my cigarette out.

Derek Malcolm, film critic.
The Guardian

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