Avatar, smoking, and crazy attitudes as a symptom of destructive beliefs

In case you missed the movie and the hype, in an early scene in Avatar, we meet Sigourney Weaver‘s character as she vehemently demands a cigarette (which a sycophant quickly brings, already lit) upon waking from an interstellar trip in suspended animation (and she smokes a few more, though not many, during the course of the movie). I have to say that I found that utterly delightful.

As a tobacco harm reduction advocate, I would, of course, be rather disappointed if people have not switched to a better delivery system for nicotine before inventing interstellar travel. And as a fan of non-silly science fiction, it tends to bug me when an author includes silliness like people smoking in space ships and sealed researcher stations where air is at a premium. But I really enjoyed imagining James Cameron thinking, “this is my house, I just made the most expensive movie ever, so to those crazy busybodies who want to tell us we cannot depict smoking, I offer this big ‘F— You’!”

When interviewed about this, Cameron naturally did not admit such a motive, trying to explain that the character was not meant to be a role model and that this was meant to help establish her lack of concern for her corporeal self. The claim has face validity, but I still think my initial interpretation was right.

All this hype brings up the question – which can be asked about a lot of claims made by the anti-tobacco extremists – do they really believe that occasional smoking in movies causes a substantial increase in real-world smoking, and if so why do they believe something so patently absurd? If smoking were vanishingly rare in real life or movies showed all the cool typical people smoking, then the claim might have some plausibility. But anyone with a passing awareness of the human condition probably realizes that a few characters smoking (invariably a smaller fraction than the real-life smoking prevalence) in incredible situations is not going to have a measurable effect. Any social scientist knows that if someone claims to have measured such an effect, they are merely demonstrating their skill at manipulating statistical models or lack of understanding of the concepts of causation and confounding.

It is rather more plausible that some portrayals in movies and television do affect behavior. The portrayal of extremely harmful behaviors that people seldom or never witness – e.g., fist-fights, the use of deadly weapons, rape – probably lowers the barriers that prevent some people from initiating such acts. The glorification of other behaviors – e.g., excessive drinking, unbounded sexual promiscuity – which shows them as extremely rewarding may encourage someone to give them a go. But the salient features of these do not apply to seeing an occasional cigarette.

For good or ill, society has some limited willingness to censor art and literature, and it could arguably do some social good if directed at, say, realistic violence. Not surprisingly, the anti-tobacco extremists are willing to seize upon that willingness and squander it by objecting to an occasional smoker. Their egocentrism, seeing their every whim as being more important than any other social interest, knows little bound. I saw the best example of this in Thailand recently, where cigarettes have to be pixilated-out in film. I turned on a television in the middle of the afternoon and saw the Nic Cage movie, 8mm, being broadcast.

If you have not seen that movie, don’t – it is a good movie, but the heavy theme of sexual violence and sex-linked bloody murder and accompanying graphic images are very difficult to get out of your head. As far as I could tell, the movie was unaltered (minus a bit of pixilation for certain other cigarette-shaped objects) – not that any minor trimming could ever make it something sensible to show during that after-school time slot – but when Cage lit up a cigarette, it was pixilated out. Worrying more about a cigarette than graphic sexual violence is clearly a case of turning a policy into a fetish (no, not a pun – look up the actual definition of the word).

It is difficult to find any evidence that the extremists do not really believe that this is serving some purpose. A New York Times editorial cited Stanton Glantz as claiming that a bit of smoking on the screen causes substantial real smoking initiation, and apparently believing it. (Glantz may also be one of the few dozen people in the world who might look at 60-year-old Sigourney Weaver playing an abrasive monomaniacal fanatic who seems like a throwback to the 1960s and is using her research to support a personal cause regardless of the costs, and think – or perhaps hope – the kids will see her as a role-model.) The NYT, even after acknowledging the absurdity of it, ends by suggesting they believe him because someone published a couple of articles supporting the claim. Despite its reputation, the NYT is as likely as any media outlet to fall into the trap of believing the pseudo-scientific claims of political activists who hype their pet health scares. (Check out ACSH’s Morning Dispatch for a couple of examples per week.)

But why does anyone believe this one? It does not require any arcane knowledge to see that it is absurd. I think the best explanation is that it is a conclusion that follows from the premise that no one likes to smoke or use nicotine. It is by making this latter claim that extremists can justify their complete disregard for people’s preferences and opposition to tobacco harm reduction. Only if they pretend that no one gets any benefits from tobacco can they justify extremism.

But once you start with one big lie you have to deal with its ripples: If no one likes to smoke then why do some people go to the trouble and expense of starting and continuing to do it? It must be that they are tricked by the positive health claims made by the manufacturers . . . no, wait, that ended 50 years ago – then by ignorance about the health effects . . . no, there has not been much of that for 30 or 40 years – then by slick aggressive media advertising . . . no, that has been all gone for decades too. Well, then it must be caused by logos on race cars and the occasional smoker in a movie . . . yeah, that’s the ticket.

The claim that people were actively persuaded by manufacturers that they should smoke (and were misled about the consequences) was clearly true at one point in history, but the attempts to cling to that world despite the obvious changes in the reality (I am describing North America in particular) would be pathetic if they were not so destructive. It is definitely pathetic that anti-tobacco activists who did not begin their professional life, or were not even born, before this claim became implausible continue to embrace it. Are they so controlled by the “bad old days” stories of their sexagenarian leaders that they cannot see the world they actually live in? The 1950s may get called the golden age of 3-D movies but does anyone really think that Avatar has the same effects as 1950s cigarette ads?

Isn’t it time to recognize that people smoke because it has benefits and start creating policies that are not based on role-playing an avatar who forever lives in 1970.

–Carl V Phillips

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  • JohnB  On January 8, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Carl, why not do a piece on the Godber Blueprint? It will explain all of the antismoking conduct of the last 35 years. One of the chief priests of the antismoker cult is Stanton Glantz. He is a mechanical engineer and glorified ‘cardiologist’. He has lent his lack of expertise to economic concerns. And, further, lent his non-expertise as a ‘film critic’. The reason for seeking censorship of smoking in films is to remove any positive reinforcement of the smoking habit, particularly concerning children viewing, and particularly concerning older films where smoking was depicted as a normal activity.

    The goal of the Godber Blueprint (1975) is to denormalize smoking/smokers so that smoking can be banned in all public places – indoors and outdoors. The important aspect of this piece is that it refers to antismokers’ notes of their World Conferences and their advocacy manuals. If you read the entire page at the link, you will realize very quickly that the antismoking crusade conducts itself as an ideo-political cult, justifying all manner of trickery and subterfuge in its deranged quest, while at the same time promoting itself as science-based and scholarly. It is a grand fraud that has allowed the building of a considerable self-serving, self-promoting bureaucracy that attracts obscene levels of funding (including other vested interests).




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