Smoking on the Big Screen

It’s perfectly legal for young people to watch actors smoke in movies. This can influence teens to light up. 


Imagine this: You’re at the movies seeing the latest box-office hit. The leading actor chases down the film’s villain before winning over the beautiful leading lady. What does he do next? He lights up a cigarette.

What’s wrong with this picture? Doesn’t the beautiful woman see her hero’s yellow teeth? Doesn’t she smell his smoky breath? And wouldn’t the good guy have trouble chasing down the villain, since smoking causes a person to cough and wheeze?

But you don’t see any of that when someone smokes cigarettes in the movies. And there is a lot of smoking in movies. Actors light up in more than 50 percent of G, PG, and PG-13 movies, according to the American Legacy Foundation, which is dedicated to eradicating smoking among young people. That means that Hollywood is showing 14 billion images of smoking to young people every year.

Getting Started

All that exposure to on-screen smoking can influence teens to smoke. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention contends that 44 percent of teens who begin smoking do so because they’ve seen smoking in movies. The CDC reports that teens are two to three times more likely to start smoking after seeing repeated smoking scenes in movies than teens who are lightly exposed to smoking in movies.

You might be reading this and thinking, “So what? What’s the big deal about smoking?” To be blunt, smoking can kill you by giving you deadly diseases like cancer, emphysema, and heart disease. And once a person starts smoking, it is very difficult for him or her to stop because of a chemical called nicotine, which is in every cigarette. Nicotine is addictive, meaning that once people breathe it into their bodies, they want more of it and need to smoke more.

Several organizations are working to eliminate smoking in youth-rated (G, PG, PG-13) movies. The American Legacy Foundation runs advertisements to tell people about the dangers of smoking. The Foundation recently convinced some movie companies, including the Walt Disney Company, to show antismoking advertisements on their youth-rated DVDs.

Extinguishing the Habit

Smoke-Free Movies, an organization based in California, is also working to ban smoking in movies. “It would be easy for the major studios to solve the problem by adopting a few common-sense policies,” says Jono Polansky, a Smoke-Free Movies representative. Polansky suggests establishing these guidelines:

  • Give an R rating to all new movies that show smoking. R-rated movies cannot be seen by people younger than 17 unless an adult accompanies them.

  • Have movie companies include a statement in the movie credits. The statement should say that no one received money or other rewards from a tobacco company in exchange for showing smoking in the movie.

  • Run a strong anti-tobacco advertisement before any film containing smoking scenes is shown in a movie theater.

  • Stop showing specific tobacco brands in movies.

Adults are not the only ones who care about this issue. Many teens are actively involved. Livia Clandorf, 16, of Chatham, New York, is a member of Reality Check, an organization that educates teens about what it considers to be the manipulative practices of tobacco companies. Livia participated in an event called a “movie stomp.” Reality Check rents out a movie theater and screens a youth-rated film that shows smoking. Every time audience members see smoking, they stomp their feet and boo. “People have seen the movie before but have never picked up on the tobacco use in it,” Livia says. “Once you look for it, you realize it’s everywhere.”

Livia wants her peers to learn from what they see on-screen rather than be discouraged about how much smoking there is in movies. “Awareness is a key component,” Livia says. “The tobacco industry spends roughly $1 million an hour advertising to teens. We’re being targeted as the future generation of replacement smokers. Youth advocates have a very strong voice, and we can really make a difference.”

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