Tag Archives: smoking in the movies

Smoking in the movies (again) and helping out the ailing pharmaceutical industry

In today’s Huffington Post, there was yet another, and not particularly good, article on that new research report (abstract here) that smoking in the movies causes ex-smokers to want to smoke again.

I guess it takes a brain scientist to definitively state that seeing something makes someone who likes or liked to do that same thing want to do it (though I am not sure how they can separate fond memory from actual desire to do it again, and how they deal with that very iffy connection between contemplating an action and actually carrying it out). At least the abstract did not conclude with any calls to action though you can be certain that just about everybody reporting on this saw it as more evidence to support banning smoking in the movies.

There is no question that we are in some way affected by what we see but the world is too large and image sources too varied to think that the best way to deal with a risky health behavior is to remove all images or references to it. (You can bet that if the Californians have their way and all smoking references are expunged from movies (because this one is not about the kids so all of cinema is in peril now) and that when they find that some people still weirdly persist in smoking, they will not for even a second think they had it wrong but that people must be being compelled by the rest of the media and what will need to be done is to move on next to expurgating the books and the art galleries.

But it is nice to see the French exhibiting some common sense (that is, preserving the cultural record) in restoring Sartre’s airbrushed cigarette and leaving Jacques Tati’s inimitable trademark pipe alone.

Look, leaving aside that we should really not be messing with widely accepted cultural modes of expression, whether smoking is up on the screen or not, people will continue to smoke. So instead of pursuing better health through (ineffective) Philistinism, and since it seems that already most movie dialogue that concerns smoking is quite negative, why not take a lesson from The Tourist in which Johnny Depp smokes e-cigarettes. If you think the monkey see – monkey do mechanism is so powerful, why not use it to get people to switch to safer nicotine use?

In another example of not seeing the obvious, this Canadian article (which details the many reasons people smoke except they seem to have forgotten that some people actually enjoy it), along with this other one from the Spec.com asks that taxpayers should foot the bill to subsidize the underperforming cessation drug industry.

After the usual bellyaching about the social costs of smoking, and what a good investment it would be to pay the drug companies so that smokers could afford their product, wouldn’t it be so much simpler to remove the ban on electronic cigarettes in this country and to let those who do not know that smokeless tobacco is a safer option (yet another good meta-review on that recently). Making e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco available and competitively priced is the best way for cessation (or health) minded smokers to switch and it will not cost taxpayers a cent.

-Paul L. Bergen

The whackier extremes in tobacco control: smoking in the movies and in the lavatory

(Before I forget I must thank Patricia over at NicotineBuzz for distributing as much tobacco related news as she does; in the last few days amongst them were these two stories which otherwise I might easily have missed.)

1. ‘54% youth take to smoking due to Bollywood, regional cinema’

We have written before about the ludicrous suggestion that the movies (as opposed to either the real world, or even television) are responsible for a substantial portion of youth taking up smoking (here and here and here and here; what can I say -it’s a great topic!). Well, take that story travelling over a few borders, and as they say, the gloves come off, and we find out that in India, the movies, or Bollywood, is responsible for 54% of youth smoking and 30% of the rest! (Article from the Times of India here).

Gladstone D’Costa of VHAG, pointed out that filmmakers often cited creative freedom as reasons for them to portray smoking in films.

“What is more important? The creative freedom of the film industry or the destruction of 114 lives every hour from tobacco related diseases?” he questioned.

Salkar added, “All creative film directors should visit hospitals offering treatment for cancer and see the suffering the patients endure. Only when the film directors see these struggles will they be aware of the consequences tobacco has on human lives.”

It seems that only the creative film directors should be visiting the cancer wards; plodding unimaginative film directors need not.  The good news is that we can keep Bollywood operating; all we really need to do is get rid of all those creative film directors.

2. Officials: Bathroom Stall Doors Removed To Prevent Smoking

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Students at McGavock High School have lost some privacy after school officials removed nearly all bathroom stall doors.

School administrators said students have been smoking in the bathrooms, so they removed several stall doors in order to prevent them from lighting up in the lavatory.

Officials said there is at least one stall in each bathroom that still has a door.

Wait til others in tobacco control hear about this innovative move. I suppose staff (or civic minded fellow students) would smell the cigarettes but the malefactor would flush them and then claim innocence.

I can’t help but think that if one stall is left, the smokers will crowd into it while the non smokers will be forced to evacuate in full view of their fellow students. (And while I am sure that in the interests of fairness, the administration probably did the same in their own washrooms, they are probably too modest to say so.)

– Paul L. Bergen

Canadian group adds in their two cents to the smoking in the movies issue

Canadian anti-smoking groups like to strut around crowing that they have consistently been at the forefront of tobacco control policy.

This country pioneered graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, restricting tobacco advertising and adding onerous taxes onto tobacco. We were among the first to have no smoking areas in restaurants. But to out lasting shame, we were remiss when it came to the issue of smoking in the movies.

Now that might have been because our industry was rather small compared to America’s but no more excuses, we are not going to be found lacking even if our press releases are preempted by the great missives of the vaunted Glantz of (to use Chris Snowdon’s spot on phrase) the People’s Democratic Republic of California.

Thanks to Neil Collishaw and the Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada we have even more precise statistics regarding the effect of smoking in the movies on smoking initiation. To wit: “Every dollar in film subsidies may in the end cost Canada $1.70 in societal tobacco losses, the group said”.

Imagine the statistical wizardry involved to come up with that remarkably precise figure. Not $1.67 or $1.74 but $1.70 (and what good luck for the number to come up with a zero at the end).

These are calculated via the flow of Canadian tax subsidies to American film productions and only those that make films that are “intended for young audiences that featured smoking”.

The activist commissioned study had a number of action suggestions which included: “Changing film-rating systems to ensure youth-rated films do not depict smoking except in historical circumstances”. I guess that makes sense since films strive to accurately reflect reality and people only smoked in the past. (Which leads to such bizarre anomalies as Thank You for Smoking where nobody actually smokes, and which logically then should lead to removing any portrayals of tobacco related disease so 80% less subsidies to any films daring to show lung cancer then.)

Another brilliant suggestion was to end all displays of tobacco brands in films and to remove all subsidies that depict smoking in any youth accessible films.

The mind stalls and sputters at the thought of where this is going.

Either you take a Singapore approach to film and remove all potentially objectionable elements (no smoking, no drugs, no crime, no obesity, no harsh talk) or you stop making films for youth. Or maybe you send out more of those vigilante youths who have been snatching the cigarettes from smokers mouths. Enough of that and you can then argue that cigarette free movies are imitating life.

Or perhaps this is even more nefarious than that. Perhaps it is an underhanded assault on e-cigarettes. Smoking in the movies is after all an illusion, so if you can outlaw things that look like smoking, it will be child’s play to outlaw e-cigarettes.

And god forbid these movie going kids start watching television (what! they do?) or read books (well, now that those are all digital it shouldn’t be too hard to remove those references) or even leave the theatre and see smokers on the streets.

Sweeping cigarettes under the red carpet is not the answer.

-Paul L. Bergen

U.S. CDC opines that half of smoking is caused by movies

This is not news, but I want to make sure that a few years from now the extremists are not able to rewrite history and pretend that they never claimed this (as we predict in the Introduction to our 2010 Yearbook).  In an editorial accompanying a study by Stanton Glantz about appearances of smoking in two decades of movies, an anonymous author writing on behalf of the CDC cited as fact several statistics that basically claim that about half of all smoking initiation in the U.S. is caused by seeing smoking in movies.  (The major conclusion of the Glantz study itself was that anti-tobacco extremists have so much money that they cannot figure out what to do with it, so spent a several person-years watching movies.  Ok, that is not actually their conclusion, but it is the most interesting finding.)

So, as soon as smoking is fully eliminated from depictions by Hollywood, we should see smoking rates drop to Swedish levels.  Given this, it is difficult to understand why so much effort goes into worrying about packaging, availability, etc.  Perhaps activists who are trying to reduce gun violence, fistfights, sexual violence, dangerous driving, over-partying, ill-advised romances, and wacky revenge plots should look into this strategy.  Blame Hollywood.  (Hmm, that sound vaguely familiar.)

On a more serious note, this is a further example of doing science that is worthless due to starting with a false premise.  If one assumes that people who become dedicated smokers get no benefit from it then the search for the random series of events that led them down the path to their habit perhaps serves a purpose.  If we assume otherwise, then the whole thing comes across as just plain silly.

As for what Glantz actually concluded: “Further reduction of tobacco use depicted in popular movies could lead to less initiation of smoking among adolescents.”  Of course, there is nothing in this button-counting exercise that supports that conclusion at all.  It is a good thing for him that University of California professors cannot get fired for making claims that go beyond what is supported by their research!


– Carl V. Phillips

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