Blowing Smoke Again!
Smoking on screen soars;
Is there a profit incentive?
By CHUCK McFADDEN
One of the things I used to notice about old films such as "Casablanca" is all the cigarette smoking. Remember? Smoke, smoke, smoke. Humphrey Bogart smoked. Paul Henreid smoked. All the people in Rick's Café Americain smoked. (Ingrid Bergman did not smoke, but in 1941, proper ladies did not smoke in public.)
Sometimes the cigarette smoke was so thick you could barely make out what was going on.
But that changed in later movies. For about 30 years--during the 60s, 70s and 80s--all that smoking tagged "Casablanca" as a period piece. Intelligent, heroic, good-looking people in white dinner jackets no longer smoked. Smoking had become distinctly lower class.
Now--unbelievably--smoking in movies has made a comeback. According to research from the University of California at San Francisco, tobacco was used every 10 to 15 minutes in the movies of the 1970s and 80s. In the 1990s, there was tobacco use about every three to five minutes.
It's not confined to theatrical releases. Take a look at "First Monday," a new CBS television series about the U.S. Supreme Court. James Garner, who plays the chief justice, smokes on the series. He smokes a lot.
Now let's step back a minute and get a little perspective here. Every year, the evidence piles up higher and higher. Smoking kills. No serious person doubts the evidence. Yet somewhere, someone or a bunch of someones decided: "Sure, we know smoking kills people. Let's make movies with lots more smoking in them anyway."
What in the world is the matter with people? Are Hollywood producers really that stupid, or venal, or colossally irresponsible? Maybe all three?
Where is Jack Valenti when we need him?
Tobacco companies deny that they pay to have their products "placed" in movies. New York Times columnist Jane E. Brody reports that tobacco companies regularly invest in movies, however.
Is all that smoking on screen just because movie people like to be insouciant about conventional wisdom? The conventional wisdom that smoking is very bad for you?
If it's the money, what kind of people will take money to push a habit which researchers tell us kills more than 400,000 people a year?
Look. What we see on the screen influences what we do. That's been true as long as there have been movies. Remember Clark Gable when he removed his shirt to reveal no undershirt in 1934's "It Happened One Night"? Undershirt sales plummeted like Enron stock. It's a famous case study of how what you see on the screen influences what you buy, or don't buy. Many, many years later, Michael Douglas wore a dress shirt with horizontal stripes when he played greedy financier Gordon Gecko in "Wall Street." Yep. Fashion-forward males across the country started showing up at the office wearing shirts with horizontal stripes. Women want the hairdos they see on the screen. Cars, furniture, skirt lengths and cigarettes--they all resonate with portions of the movie audience.
Teenagers are the first victims of the screen smoking. Three thousand teenagers each day start smoking. Seeing a lot of smoking on screen in fact triples the odds that a teen will try smoking, say the UCSF researchers.
"C'mon, Brad, Gwyneth and you
others. I want big clouds of smoke now. Really put your hearts into it. LET'S GET PUFFING, DAMN IT!"
Teenagers are idiots. That's their job. I know. I was a teenager myself, and I was an idiot. Grown-ups, if there are any in Hollywood, shouldn't take advantage of teenage idiocy, however.
Congress banned broadcast advertising of tobacco in 1970. Even if it were constitutional, a ban on smoking in the movies or in television scripts wouldn't be a good idea. The next stop could be a ban on doughnuts.
Do you suppose there's any chance shame would work with the Hollywood satraps? You know, the idea that they are influencing fad-addled teenagers to take up a habit that could kill them?
Probably not. If they had any sense of shame, they wouldn't have resurrected smoking in the first place.
Any ideas, Jack? Yoohoo, Jack? Are you there?
© 2002 by Charles M. McFadden. The Chuck McFadden caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel. The other illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collections, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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