How Smoking On Film Is Still Causing Health Problems for Society



Surprisingly, while smoking rates in the western world have been on the decline for many decades, there was an upsurge in smoking on screen recorded in a 2006 survey by the University of California, San Francisco. The survey found that three-quarters of Hollywood films showed tobacco smoking. More than a third – 36% – of films rated G (the American equivalent of our U film certificate) and PG showed actors smoking.

The rate is higher than it’s been since the 1950s and doctors are concerned that young people who see smoking on celluloid are more likely to take up the habit. Two pieces of research, one in the Lancet the other in the journal, Pediatrics, found that children who saw the most smoking on screen were nearly three times more likely than other children to start smoking. Surprisingly, it’s children whose parents don’t smoke who are most susceptible to this influence. The research looked at children as young as 10-years-old.

Harvard call for action

Heavy weight academics, in the shape of the Harvard School of Public Health, would like Hollywood to rein in smoking in movies. They say that some films show up to 14 smoking instances an hour.

The school was behind some of the biggest breakthroughs in drink driving reduction in America, including the designated driver campaigns. They are convinced that the way to alter behaviour is not by condemning bad behaviours, but by offering examples of good behaviour – in the 1980s, they promoted the idea of the designated driver by persuading TV producers to include the idea in their programmes, including the hugely popular barroom sitcom Cheers. The seed was planted in 160 top-rated shows in four years and in the next three drink driving deaths fell by a quarter.

Persuading the elite

Since 1998 it has been illegal for tobacco companies to buy product placement slots in films, but Harvard would like to go further and, since 1999, have been lobbying the power elite of Hollywood to make their films either smoke-free or show it as an unappealing habit.

Film producer Lindsay Doran is one of those who has been persuaded. She convinced the director of Ferris Bueller’s Day Out – a massive hit with teenagers – to make the film a smoke-free zone. The same thing happened with The Devil Wear’s Prada, despite that film being set in the heavy-smoking world of New York and Paris fashion.

Coughing and spitting

Doran also produced Stranger than Fiction. She wanted to make the film tobacco free, but was persuaded that one of the characters, played by Emma Thompson, had to smoke. If you have seen the film, and heard Thompson coughing, spitting performance, you’ll have no doubt that the decision was made to portray smoking in a negative – some would say its true – light.

And, Harvard is not alone. A dozen of America’s health pressure groups have also called for Hollywood to stub it out. The law too is on the move. Forty one of America’s state attorneys general signed a letter asking for an ad at the start of any film on DVD that shows smoking. If that goes ahead, then it will cause film makers a major inconvenience if they want to show actors smoking in their works.

Sparking up and turning on

A new approach may be to show actors not lighting up, but turning on their cigarettes. E-liquid E-cigarettes were invented in China in 2004 and went international in 2009. Many smokers are turning to them as an alternative to smoking that doesn’t smell, most likely won’t get you banned from your favourite bar and leave a trail of butts behind you. Perhaps Hollywood will follow the trend that will see 1million Brits predicted to take up e-cigarettes this year.

Derek Devlin is a lover of cinema and has spent years smoking. He is also a tech lover and got into vaping after reading an article at