Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Smoke gets in my eyes

Some group called Smoke Free Movies has been purchasing full-page ads in The New York Times to push for getting smoking out of the movies. My first reaction was to be all for this since there is nothing more irritating than to be enjoying a movie and having the guy sitting next to you puffing away on a stogie. But then, I thought, isn’t smoking in cinemas prohibited in most places already?

Then I read more closely. They actually want the characters in movies to stop smoking. Well, that’s a different kettle of fish.

The smoking issue in general is a bit tricky for me. My libertarian tendency is to say, let people do whatever they like, as long as they are not hurting anybody else. But then the anti-smoking side points out that a huge cost is exacted from society in terms of medical costs and insurance premiums because of the minority’s insistence on its demonstrably unhealthy habit. (In fairness, I should point out that I knew someone years ago who was part of this campaign, and he did not like at all to be labeled “anti-smoking.” He was, he insisted, pro-non-smoking.) But surely the costs of smoking can be shifted more fairly to the smoking community, right? Like insurance discounts to non-smokers, etc.? But then you get into the problem of second-hand smoke. If, in a democracy, your right to swing your fist ends at my nose then, the argument goes, your right to puff smoke ends at my lungs. (To my non-American readers: if all this fuss about smoking strikes you as silly, just wait. Health-wise political correctness will eventually reach your shores, if it hasn’t already.)

Fortunately, I live in a place where I don’t have to take a stand. Smoking is outlawed most places already and few, if any, of my friends still smoke, so I don’t even have to think about it. Things aren’t quite so simple when we are in Ireland, but I find a few pints of Guinness make a smoky pub a whole lot easier to take. And, besides, in just a few years I’ve noticed the rate of smoking declining even in the Emerald Isle.

But enough about that. What about smoking on the silver screen? Is it true that when attractive people, like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, light up it makes impressionable young people want to do the same? Well, if you follow that logic to its extreme, then you would have to conclude that people who see Brad and Julia make love in a movie might want to do that as well.

Okay, that’s a really bad example. What I’m trying to say is: if we’re going to stipulate that behavior on the movie screen causes people to mimic the same behavior in real life, then we’re going down a pretty slippery slope. I mean, if this is true, why should be worried right now about smoking instead of more serious problems like all the murders committed in movies, crime in general, infidelity, furious car chases down narrow streets destroying fruit carts along the way, madmen plotting to take over the world from their underground fortresses, criminals shooting up entire neighborhoods in an effort to eliminate one witness who could identify them, etc.?

This is somewhat similar to the debate about whether violence in movies and other media affects impressionable young minds and contributes to tragedies like Columbine. Personally, I believe that movies are a minor influence when placed in their proper perspective within life in general. But Smoke Free Movies does make an interesting point. It claims that the tobacco companies are using paid product placements in films to get around the ban on cigarette advertising. The group makes four proposals:

  • Put a disclaimer in the credits stating that there was no quid pro quo from the tobacco company. Fair enough, although my experience is that only strange people like myself ever hang around for the credits. But, if there has been a lot of animal action, I do always look to see that no animals were actually harmed.

  • Run anti-tobacco ads immediately before movies featuring smoking. And anti-drinking ads? And anti-murder ads? Where does it end? But go ahead, it won’t bother me. An anti-smoking ad will be a nice change of pace from the usual ads exhorting me to go the concession counter and rot my teeth with candy and sugary drinks.

  • Don’t display actual tobacco brands on-screen. If you must. But if people in bars start whipping out cigarette cartons that are white with no lettering or featuring the name of some made-up brand, this will draw a lot more attention to itself than a familiar pack of Camels or Winston.

  • Give all movies with smoking an “R” rating. Pretty extreme. I’m guessing this will never happen voluntarily. There’s too much money involved. And, frankly, there is no more effective way to make an activity seem cool, hip, sophisticated and grown-up than to tell kids that you have to be at least 17 years old to watch it.

    Clearly, Smoke Free Movies has the best of intentions. And we know what road is paved with good intentions. But when you start making rules, even voluntary ones, that art and entertainment have to promote certain values or discourage certain behaviors, you are no longer talking about art or entertainment. It is propaganda.

    Disclaimer: No money or anything else of value was accepted in exchange for mentioning Camel and Winston in this commentary.

    -S.L., 3 May 2001

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