Tag Archives: avatar

Smoking in the movies: 5th hand smoke?

In the ludicrously titled Movies Downplay Smoking Risk anti-tobacco activists once again try to formulate arguments for removing the very sight of people smoking. The title of the press release (because this qualifies as news in some quarters) in its departure from any connection to reality signals the tenor of the article itself. In short, just because movies do not explicitly lay out the potential harms associated with smoking does not mean they are downplaying the risk. In fact, though granted that characters do keep smoking in the movies, they rarely acknowledge the pleasure and if they talk about it at all, they almost always say something about how these things will kill them.

Carl has already written at length about some aspects of smoking in the movies (see Avatar, smoking and crazy attitudes) but I hope to bring up a few other points here.

First of all, why the insistence on the big screen when the small screen is in every household and you (and your children) can watch shows like Mad Men which have hardly a scene without some smoking going on? Of course, Mad Men accurately mirrors the smoking prevalence of the time. It is television as a thoughtful, realistic and educational medium.

Contrast that with the movie Thank You for Smoking which managed to take a pretty good book and eviscerate it somewhat by making a supposedly anti-smoking movie about smoking but without any smoking on screen. Since there was no actual smoking in the film, it contained fewer negative images of smoking than most films and so ended up rather toothless.

Imagine for a moment an alternative future where part of a strong nudge to move people to public transportation included demonizing personal transportation such as cars. Would it seem reasonable to remove all images of cars from movies past and present and place anti-car ads before any film that might include a car? Given the number of car loving movies this could be quite the challenge as opposed to smoking wherein I cannot remember one love letter to the practice.

And yet we have not only this campaign to remove historical data from motion pictures but have already seen smoking removed from old cartoons, famous photographs of Churchill and Sartre, and even postage stamps.

But on to point number two. What makes smoking so special? If as Cheryl Healton notes “the nation’s youth are still exposed to billions of toxic tobacco impressions”, how many images of murder are they exposed to? I worry more for the effects of continual exposure to the juvenile and insipid messages informing so many films, the repetition of basic tropes that do not reflect reality but in fact are quite counterproductive to producing a thoughtful citizen.

This particular imbalance struck me quite forcibly when Carl told me about watching 8mm (the Nicholas Cage film) on Thai television with scenes of degradation and torture intact but the cigarette carefully pixilated out.

According to research, more than one-third to one-half of youth smoking initiation can be traced to exposure to smoking in films, a conclusion supported by the National Cancer Institute. The landmark 1998 Master Settlement Agreement recognized the enormous impact film has on our culture and banned paid tobacco product placement in movies. Despite those efforts, smoking in movies continues to recruit more than 180,000 new adolescent smokers each year.

Love this. Does this mean that removing smoking from the movies would actually have an effect? So by that logic, the movies must be creating many of the criminals out there -heist movies fueling bank robberies and slasher movies driving random killing? But the statement about movies “recruiting” smokers is really pushing the envelope. Portrayal of a common activity is not recruiting in any sense.

Healton said. “they have only labeled a small fraction of films with smoking, suggesting that smoking is not a problem.” “It’s time for the major studios and theater chains that control the rating system to adopt the R-rating for future smoking and resolve this long-standing problem once and for all,” said Dr. Stanton Glantz, Professor of Medicine at UCSF and director of the Smoke Free Movies project. “After 80 years, Hollywood should stop smoking around kids.”

Glantz, who has been at war with reality for most of his career is taking it to the movies. What little sense of reality they have he would like to see removed. Even the most fantastic of movies grounds itself somewhat in reality and he seems to wants the medium to construct an alternate reality, a place where smoking never happened and never will. He sees this as an assault on the youth but the real assault is his on reality and history, on seeing the world as it is, on accepting human behavior rather than demonizing and removing it from the public eye.

And finally, the ultimate travesty is to call certain wish fulfilling proposals evidence based.

Legacy has joined a host of prominent health and parents organizations – including the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and more – to urge the MPAA and its member studios to adopt four evidence-based policies that would help prevent hundreds of thousands of U.S. adolescents from starting to smoke and avert tens of thousands of future tobacco deaths. The Smoke Free Movies policy solutions include:
Add strong and effective anti-smoking ads before all movies in which tobacco is depicted.
Certify that nothing of value was received in exchange for the depiction of tobacco in a movie.
End all brand appearances.
Rate any new movie with smoking as R.

Somehow if a movie receives something of value for depicting tobacco that that will encourage smoking? Wow. The others are a little more likely but there is no real evidence supporting them.

Ultimately this attack on tobacco in films has nothing to do with people smoking. It is an attack on history and verisimilitude. It is a further erosion of a medium already sadly lacking in any dedication to social realities. It is an aesthetic affront on adult sensibilities.

It is just plain ridiculous.

– Paul L. Bergen

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