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Movie Smoking Depictions Fall; Foes Want Extinction

Audrey Hepburn in
American actors George Peppard and Martin Balsam compete to light actor Audrey Hepburn's cigarette at a formal party in a still from director Blake Edwards' film, "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Source: Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

Humphrey Bogart never seemed to be without a cigarette on the big screen, and a generation of men in the 1940s learned a romantic move when Paul Henreid put two between his lips, lit them both and handed one to Bette Davis in “Now, Voyager.”

Film directors’ dependence on cigarettes as a style setter is lessening, researchers led by Stanton Glantz, a campaigner for smoke-free films, said today in a report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While Sigourney Weaver’s smoking in 2009’s “Avatar” sparked controversy, the number of tobacco-related incidents fell by almost half in last year’s top movies, compared with 2005.

Efforts to fight tobacco in films, including the Smoke Free Movies project headed by Glantz, may be having an effect on Hollywood, according to an editorial note attached to the report in the CDC’s Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report. Further steps, such as assigning R ratings to movies that show smokers, may be needed to stamp out onscreen tobacco, according to the note.

“The bad news is that 54 percent of PG-rated movies still have smoking in them,” Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a telephone interview.

The editorial note in the CDC publication represents the strongest statement to date by federal health officials that steps should be taken to combat movie depictions of smoking, Glantz said.

‘Big Deal’

“Having the CDC weigh in is a very, very big deal,” Glantz said.

Top-grossing movies released last year depicted 1,935 smoking incidents, a drop of 49 percent from 3,967 in comparable films from 2005, according to the findings.

Glantz’s Smoke Free Movies campaign ran print advertisements to protest the smoking scenes in “Avatar,” directed by James Cameron.

“James Cameron did us a gigantic favor with ‘Avatar’ -- it became such a controversy all by itself that it substantially advanced the issue,” Glantz said. He sent the director a fruit basket to thank him, he said.

The report cites research by the Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! Project of a Sacramento, California-based nonprofit group named Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails.

Top-Grossing Movies

The group looked at the 10 top-grossing movies each week from 1991 through 2009, and found that smoking depiction peaked in 2005, according to the CDC report.

In 2005, for instance, the actors Owen Wilson and Christopher Walken were seen smoking cigars on a balcony in “Wedding Crashers,” the film directed by David Dobkin. Also, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt smoked cigarettes in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” from director Doug Liman.

Two studies showed that adolescents with higher exposure to smoking in movies “are 2.0 to 2.7 times more likely to try cigarette smoking in the future,” according to a National Cancer Institute monograph dated June 2008.

In the U.S., smoking is responsible for almost 1 in 5 deaths, and about 8.6 million people suffer from smoking-related lung and heart diseases, according to the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

States spend $500 million a year subsidizing films that portray smoking, said Cheryl G. Healton, president and chief executive officer of the American Legacy Foundation, based in Washington.

“The film and tobacco industries are in a deadly partnership that’s leading to the addiction of our kids to a product that most of them never get off,” Healton said in a telephone interview.

Trade Group

Congressmen Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joseph R. Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican, have urged the Motion Picture Association of America, a Washington-based trade group, to reduce youth exposure to smoking in movies.

In an Aug. 19 letter, the legislators said the industry should consider recommendations for anti-tobacco advertisements, mandatory R ratings for films with smoking except in limited circumstances, certifying for each movie that no compensation was received from tobacco companies by the producers, and prohibiting the mention of tobacco brands.

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