Where There's Smoke, There's Ire

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Hollywood is being asked to clean up its act. Well, that’s nothing new, of course, but the emphasis now is upon the film industry’s effect upon impressionable youth. There is agreement, it seems, that youngsters are very easily influenced by what they see in films, and apt to imitate their favorite stars. It’s got some people very worried.

For instance: in a modern film, teen-agers might see a couple kissing, undressing, and making love. The camera will not turn away from their nudity or their actions. Moreover, the man and woman are not married — at least to each other. Everything is shown, nothing is held back, even — and this is almost too ghastly to mention — the post-coital cigarette. Is there no decency at all? Smoking, right out in the open, for kids to see!

Oh, the sex and nudity are OK, but the smoking has got to stop. A lot of people are very upset that our children are seeing their favor actors — not just naked or fornicating, but smoking. Dreadful!

You might be surprised that so much information has been collected on this subject. People with nothing better to do, apparently, have been counting the times when actors light up on the screen. It’s very impressive. For example: in 250 films, 3,346 "occurrences" of tobacco use, or imagery (?) occurred. And nearly half of these involved smoking or chewing by a major or minor character. A fifth of the incidents involved background tobacco imagery, whatever that is. Most tobacco use was cigarette smoking (69%), with cigars a distant second, at 20%. Of the 250 most profitable movies released in the period from 1988 to 1997, 95% of them showed people using tobacco. (We don’t know the percentage that showed attractive people drinking whiskey, or exceeding the speed limit, or spitting on the sidewalk, or picking their noses, but it’s the smoking that we’re supposed to worry about, I guess.)

There’s more smoking in R-rated movies than others, for some reason. Our young people will not only associate smoking with sex, therefore, but perhaps with other activities, such as serial killing, torture, execution (the grim executioner offering the victim a last cigarette as the firing squad assembles) and various other unsavory activities, none of which seem to arouse too much indignation, except as they may involve smoking.

What to do about this problem? There are four recommendations: First, certify in the credits that nobody received anything from the tobacco companies in return for showing cigarettes in the picture. Second, require strong anti-tobacco ads to run before films with any tobacco shown in the picture. Third, don’t identify brands. Generic cigarettes only. Four, rate any film which contains smoking R.

Another approach to the "problem" might be to ignore it. After all, as the statistics show, most smoking occurs in R movies already. Besides, what could be sillier than giving movies like Going My Way, or Lassie, an R rating because somebody in the film is seen lighting up? And if children are going to smoke because movie heroes/heroines do it, does it matter what brand they smoke? Besides, its naïve to think that disclaimers or anti-smoking ads will make much difference, although if delivered by an appealing character puffing on a pipe it might help. And I think it would tax credulity if the executioner asked the condemned man if he’d like a last mint.

I attend so few movies that my advice to the film industry can — indeed, certainly will — be ignored. I would suggest fewer offensive four-letter words. One reason I rarely go to movies is because I won’t pay someone seven or eight bucks to be embarrassed or annoyed. And ease up on the sex. We know what goes on in the bedroom; graphic demonstrations aren’t needed. And when there’s shooting and other mayhem, we don’t need to see every bullet hole and bloody wound. And how about stories that depict noble and elevated behavior instead of the base and unworthy?

Clean up Hollywood? By all means. Banning smoking in movies is a good idea, of course: maybe number 20 on a list of twenty things Hollywood ought to do to merit our respect. Turn out revolting dreck, but, please! — no smoking!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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