It’s becoming very difficult to find a place to fire up a cigarette and tobacco use is being demonized just about everywhere. A recent Gallup survey found only 20 percent of Americans now smoke, the lowest rate in 69 years. Cigarette sales also are down. In California sales have dropped from a peak of 2.8 billion packs in 1982 to 972 million packs, a dramatic decline in sales.
But there is one place where cigarettes are gaining, in movies. No, I don’t mean in movie theatres. Firing up there will still get you tossed out.
Maybe you’ve noticed this scene in recent movies you’ve watched. Early in the film one of the main characters, usually a big movie star, lights up a cig and puffs away. Just last night I was watching a movie and the female lead, playing a doctor, was sucking on a cig a few minutes into the movie.
It’s happened so many times, I’ve become convinced the tobacco companies must be involved in all this on-screen smoking. It didn’t take much digging to find out that movies have become a not very subtle, insidious form of advertising for the cigarette business.
This isn’t exactly new news. Marlboro paid $42,000 to have their brand appear in Superman II. Another brand paid $350,000 to have James Bond smoke their brand.
And even though since 1998, the tobacco industry has been banned from paying to have cigarettes shown in movies, smoking in movies has increased. Just two years after the ban, smoking in films intended for a young audience increased by 50 percent.
In 2002, 68.5 percent of youth-rated movies (G, PG, PG-13) had smoking, and 83 percent of R-rated movies showed smoking. A study published in 2003 by Dartmouth Medical School found that over 52 percent of teens who start smoking attribute it to seeing smoking in movies.
It seems that tobacco companies responded to being banned from all print and broadcast advertising by creating tacit endorsements on film by adored movie stars in a culture that is obsessed with celebrities.
And even though tobacco companies are technically barred from spending money to promote smoking in movies, it’s obvious from the number of famous actors firing up cigs on camera that their influence, however they are doing it, is still there.
Perhaps most disturbing is their targeting of teens, the age at which most smokers get hooked on tobacco.
Between 2002 and 2012, almost half the movies were rated PG-13, making them easy for teens to watch.
Recent content analysis of PG-13 movies showed a decline in depiction of smoking between 2005 and 2010. However, in 2011, the incidents increased, and there was a further increase in 2012.
In 2012 the Surgeon General said that a policy of giving an R rating to youth-related movies with smoking would be effective in reducing the number of young smokers.
It’s highly unlikely that will happen given the influence of the tobacco lobby. Even if that policy were in place, the tobacco industry would probably just ferret out an even more nefarious way to promote its product.
All of which should make us step back and ask ourselves a big-picture question. If a product is legal to manufacture and sell, why should the advertising of that product be banned? The way the tobacco industry has exploited movies shows that successfully keeping a large industry from promoting its product is virtually impossible.
But the next time you see a big star light up, know this, it’s really the tobacco companies that are blowing smoke.