The “Mad Men” charmer Kent cigarettes smokes up a storm, as do many other characters – even a pregnant woman – in the AMC drama set in the world of 1960s Madison Avenue advertising. The show, which was just nominated for a slew of Emmys despite only so-so ratings, accurately reflects how people behaved back then, decades before smoking bans in workplaces.
The actors are actually puffing on herbal cigarettes, not tobacco. That’s the case in most movies and TV productions these days. But the message they send – especially to impressionable young people – is that smoking is cool. (The viewer usually doesn’t learn, after all, that the chain-smoking character may be well on the way to respiratory problems, lung cancer and a premature death.)
Research has shown that on-screen smoking influences young people’s decision whether to smoke. That’s an important consideration: Nearly 80 percent of adult smokers picked up the habit before age 18, and those who begin smoking at an early age have a harder time stopping.
Some movie companies deserve applause for taking an aggressive anti-smoking stance, instituting policies that have drastically reduced tobacco scenes and nearly eliminating them in films targeted at kids.
A new study published in the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that scenes depicting tobacco use declined by about 96 percent in movies from Time Warner, Comcast and the Walt Disney Company since 2005.
Tobacco scenes also declined in movies from companies without anti-smoking policies, but only by about 42 percent – and more than 40 percent of their youth-oriented movies depicted tobacco use.
Cutting back on tobacco use in movies hasn’t hurt film companies’ bottom lines. Eight of the 10 top-grossing films of 2010 were from the three companies with anti-smoking policies.
Health organizations such as the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association are pushing for tougher measures on screen smoking in new movies – even an “R” rating. There would be exceptions for movies that depict the health consequences of smoking (think Andy Garcia’s terminally ill character in “Dead Again,” puffing through a hole in his throat) or historic figures who actually smoked (think Edward G. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck”).
An “R” rating makes sense if a film glamorizes smoking or depicts it as benign. Profanity and nudity already trigger a restricted rating; the long-term effects of tobacco use are hardly less damaging.