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Those were the days? Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in 1937's "Easy Living" (Courtesy Everett Collection)
Those were the days? Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in 1937's "Easy Living" (Courtesy Everett Collection)

Liam Lacey: Behind the Screens

The film butt controversy: Statistical smoke and mirrors? Add to ...

The recent viral video of Herman Cain’s campaign manager, Mark Block, taking a drag on a cigarette while endorsing the U.S. Republican presidential candidate, touched a nerve with viewers for good reason. He looks, as David Letterman noted, like an adult-video store clerk. It’s simply weird to see someone smoking on camera nowadays, especially when they’re trying to promote trustworthiness and sound reasoning.

Previous columns by Liam Lacey

If you see many movies, it should be clear that smoking is, typically, about as glamorous and sexy as impetigo. Sure, tough guys may have a stogie sticking out of a corner of their mouths, or lonely misfits in indie films may puff up a storm, but the carcinogenic kisses of the Bogart and Bacall era just don’t thrill us anymore. Most viewers would agree with the line in Jason Reitman’s satire, Thank You for Smoking, that the only people you see in movies who smoke these days are either “psychopaths or Europeans.”

Yet smoking in movies remains an inflammatory issue. Recently another smoking-in-movies study, reported in Scientific American, claimed that movies with smoking are even bad for studios’ health because “even after controlling for factors such as total budget and film rating, the researchers found that smoking was associated with 13 per cent less money made in ticket sales. The researcher, Stanton Glantz, heads an advocacy organization called the Center for Tobacco Control, Research and Education, that is pushing for all movies with smoking to be automatically R-rated in the U.S. (Over 17, unless accompanied by an adult).

Given that audiences don’t usually know ahead of time whether a movie includes smoking, this probably reflects the peculiarities of different movie genres: Action flicks, and “edgy” indie films are more likely to feature characters who smoke. Smoking scenes didn’t hurt two of the biggest box-office successes of recent years, including Avatar, with Sigourney Weaver as a chain-smoking scientist, or Alice in Wonderland, with its hookah-puffing caterpillar (which caused the film’s rating to go from General to Parental Guidance).

There’s a concerted effort to cut back on film smoking. According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking scenes have declined in the past five years from an average of 26 to one per film. Three companies (Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal) have instituted policies to reduce smoking, and tobacco scenes in their films have declined 95 per cent in five years. For companies without such a policy – Fox, Sony and Paramount – the numbers were still down about 40 per cent.

The move came after a number of studies that pointed out the correlation between adolescents seeing smoking in movies and taking it up themselves. Most recently, a British study published in the journal Thorax looked at the potential influence of some of the 360 top U.S. box-office films released between 2001 and 2005, and found that adolescents who saw the most films depicting smoking were 76 per cent more likely to try smoking and 50 per cent were current smokers. Similar research in the U.S. has led some anti-smoking groups to claim (see, for example, scenesmoking.org) that more than half of teens who take up smoking do so solely because of having smoking in movies, a claim as startling as it is unprovable.

As with much media research (on violence, for example) the correlation between viewed incidents and behaviour often seems extremely reductive. When I see smoking in movies, like most viewers, I assume it’s about situation and character – sometimes showing weakness (like Sissy Spacek as a grieving mother in In the Bedroom) or death-defying recklessness, like the stogie-chomping Sly Stallone in The Expendables.

There may be any number of reasons why there’s a correlation between kids who watch a lot of grown-up movies and those who take up smoking. Obvious culprits are the Internet and celebrity magazines, filled with paparazzi shots of youth idols like Scarlett Johansson, the Olsen Twins, Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Daniel Radcliffe, Robert Pattison and Kristen Stewart, butts in hand. A publication ban on celebrity smokers might help.

And if you want to keep your kids from taking up the fatally bad habit, get them to watch Mark Block in the Herman Cain ad just to remind them: Smoking is unbelievably creepy.

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