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