The Smoke Screen Recurs.
20 March 2022
An article in the Good Weekend 19 March notes that screening services such as Netflix have a lot of smoking in their movies.
There was a lot of placement of smoking in movies for many years and in the 1920s and 30s there was more smoking in movies than in real life, which was probably not a coincidence.
Steve McQueen smoked in ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ and like Yul Brunner, Humphrey Bogart, Betty Grable, Paul Newman, and John Wayne was in the many Hollywood stars to die of lung cancer.
In the 1950s and 60s tobacco companies sponsored many TV programs, such as the ‘Jack Benny Show’ (comedy) and ‘Gunsmoke’. Walt Disney, Larry King, Moe Howard (3 Stooges), Larry Hagman (Dallas), Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) and Ed Sullivan were some of the TV stars to die of smoking-caused cancers. Some musicians to die were Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Duke Ellington, George Harrison and Sammy Davis Jr.
The heath activists managed to get rid of tobacco advertising in Australia in 1976, but sponsorship, which was cheaper than actual advertising and got much more coverage lasted until after 2000. In the US activists drew attention to product placement in movies where brands were displayed or whole characters written to publicise smoking and fund movies. Product placement by tobacco was banned in Australia in 1992 and in the US in 1998, unless historical figures were known to smoke.
But now smoking in movies is rising again, and it seems to be worse in streaming services like Netflix. Smoking does not seem to be increasing yet, but with vaping acting as a new gateway to smoking, the battle ain’t over yet.
From the ashes: Smoking’s curious comeback on the silver screen
Once the epitome of Hollywood glamour, cigarettes were all but snuffed out in films and TV shows by the turn of the millennium. Now they’re making a comeback. Plot-driven or something more sinister?
By Tim Elliott Good Weekend March 18, 2022
Smoking has made a furtive, and somewhat puzzling, comeback in recent years, something one US veteran anti-tobacco activist says is not random: “Nothing in Hollywood happens by chance.”
When news broke, in mid-2021, that the cult turn of the millennium TV series Sex and the City was to return, the world’s entertainment media suffered a brief bout of tachycardia, the kind of hand-flapping hysteria that could reasonably be expected to herald the return of another well-known cult figure. The excitement was understandable. The new series, called And Just Like That, promised contemporary viewers everything that had made the original show so effortlessly watchable; cheeky humour, exceptional shoes and a non-threatening dose of prime-time friendly transgressiveness.
Yet there was one facet of And Just Like That which got special attention: one of the lead characters, Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), was smoking again. “Why, decades after she quit the habit, would Carrie return to it?” asked W magazine. A headline in New York magazine read: “And Just Like That … Carrie Is Smoking Again.” “Carrie’s smoking again!” the Daily Mail yelped.
Such head-shaking suggested not just disapproval but bewilderment. The common consensus was that, thanks to decades of pressure from anti-tobacco groups, smoking in TV and films had all but disappeared. In fact, smoking has made a furtive, and somewhat puzzling, comeback in recent years. Agent Smith lights up in The Matrix Resurrections; Kate Winslet vapes in Mare of Easttown; and Christina Applegate’s character Jen sparks up in the woman buddy show, Dead to Me. There’s plenty of smoking in the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy and in Orange is the New Black, and also in Modern Family and Law & Order: SVU.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Carrie Bradshaw resumed her smoking habit in the latest Sex and the City series, And Just Like That.
The fug that all but envelops The Queen’s Gambit, which is set in the mid-1950s and ’60s in the US, could plausibly be excused: after all, in 1954 a full 45 per cent of Americans smoked, that country’s highest level. (Australia reached its peak – also 45 per cent – in 1960). But smoking is also popping up in contemporary films, and especially those aimed at kids: a 2019 report from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of times tobacco use appeared on-screen in PG-13 films jumped 120 per cent between 2010 and 2018.
So what’s going on? “It’s not totally clear, but we’ve got a few ideas,” says Professor Stanton Glantz, a veteran anti-tobacco activist and founder of Smoke Free Media at the University of California, San Francisco, which tracks the incidences of smoking in movies and video. “One thing for sure is, these are not random creative decisions. Nothing in Hollywood happens by chance.”
Cigarettes and movies have been inextricably linked for generations. Ever since the advent of the talkies, tobacco companies have understood the power of film to shape cultural norms. In the 1930s and ’40s, tobacco companies paid Hollywood stars to appear in cigarette ads and smoke on screen. In return, the studios received funding for film advertising. Some actors, including Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard, appeared smoking in posters that promoted both the film and the brand of cigarette.
In the 1950s and ’60s, tobacco companies shifted their focus to television, spending hundreds of millions of dollars sponsoring popular programs such as The Jack Benny Program and Gunsmoke. Steve McQueen smoked in Wanted: Dead or Alive. Peter Gunn smoked. Even the Flintstones smoked. In 1962, the American television network CBS assured tobacco companies that the TV set “is the greatest cigarette vending machine ever devised”.
In the early 1970s, however, regulators in the US and Australia began banning cigarette advertising on TV and radio, prompting the tobacco companies to turn their attention once more to the movies. Product placement became rife, with Big Tobacco paying millions to have its brands on screen.
In 1982, Superman II featured a classic fight scene in which Superman is thrown into a Marlboro truck by General Zod. In 1989, Philip Morris paid $US350,000 ($472,000) to have its Lark brand featured in the James Bond film Licence to Kill.
Some companies were literally throwing cigarettes at actors: in 1984, American Tobacco supplied more than $US5000 worth of cigarettes to the set of Beverly Hills Cop. “I do feel heartened at the increasing number of occasions when I go to a movie and see a pack of cigarettes in the hands of the leading lady,” Hamish Maxwell, then president of Philip Morris, told a marketing meeting in 1983, adding, “We must continue to exploit new opportunities to get cigarettes on screen and into the hands of smokers.”
Such marketing has been phenomenally powerful, not only at creating new smokers but at manipulating reality. “You often hear these days that, ‘Oh everyone smoked in the 1920s and 1930s,’ ” says Glantz. “But it turns out that people back then smoked less than they did 10 years ago. The reason people now think people smoked so much then is that the movies back then had so many people smoking.”
Paying for on-screen product placement was banned in Australia in 1992, and in 1998 in the US. By 2007, according to the CDC, smoking on screen was at an all-time low: virtually the only people you saw puffing away were historical figures whose persona was inseparable from their habit: Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro or King George VI in the 2010 film The King’s Speech, in which he’s frequently depicted lighting up as he struggles with his speech impediment.
But smoking soon rose from the ashes. According to the CDC, tobacco use in top-grossing movies jumped 57 per cent from 2010 to 2018. Meanwhile, in the real world, smoking rates in the US were going in the opposite direction, from 19.3 per cent in 2010 to 13.7 per cent in 2018. The CDC didn’t attempt to explain why there was more smoking in films, but it would be naive to think that Big Tobacco had simply walked away from the movies.
“If you see a pack of Marlboros on screen, someone would have had to approve that,” says Glantz. “It doesn’t get in there by accident. How exactly it gets there, we don’t really know at this stage. There are still product placement companies, but they all deny they work with Big Tobacco. But if you see smoke, there is a fire.” (A spokesman for Philip Morris in Australia said the company does not engage in product placement in movies or on television.)
Streaming services aren’t bound by regulatory agreements, which is how shows like The Umbrella Academy managed to include cigarettes in every scene of its latest season.
Streaming is a big part of the problem, according to Glantz. Every year the tobacco companies must certify to the US Federal Trade Commission that they haven’t paid for their product to be placed in movies, TV shows or video games. But the agreement doesn’t cover streaming content, the enormous quantity of which makes it all but impossible for anti-tobacco groups and regulators to monitor.
“The cynic in me says that tobacco ads have been so curtailed globally that the tobacco industry must have a role in it,” says Becky Freeman, associate professor of public health at the University of Sydney.
“But then, given how many productions are involved and the sheer number of people, it seems unlikely there would be big money changing hands without someone leaking about it.” Freeman believes it’s more likely that streaming services are using smoking “to stand out from the big budget movies, and to appear more ‘indie’.”
Some streaming services are more “indie” than others. Despite a pledge to limit smoking on screen, Netflix remains the worst offender. (According to the Truth Initiative, an American anti-smoking group, scenes involving smoking tripled in the latest season of its superhero series The Umbrella Academy, which managed to include tobacco in every scene.)
The major studios also have policies that aim to restrict the amount of on-screen smoking. The strictest is Disney, which banned it in 2007. Thus its 2021 film, Cruella, which features the ghoulish De Vil without her signature cigarette. But all of the studios – even Disney – make allowances for creative licence and historical accuracy.
Kate Winslet as Detective Sergeant Mare Sheehan vapes in the crime drama, Mare of Easttown.
“Smoking was so widespread in the 20th century that it would be inauthentic not to show it in a drama set in that period,” says novelist and screenwriter John Collee. Collee, whose credits include Master and Commander, Happy Feet and Hotel Mumbai, is writing an adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling book, Boy Swallows Universe, which is set in Brisbane in the early 1980s among working-class criminals and journalists. As it happens, the movie will include a historical figure called Slim Halliday, who was a member of the Brisbane underworld and an enthusiastic smoker. (Spoiler alert: in the film, Halliday dies of lung cancer.)
The problem for groups like the Truth Initiative and Smoke Free Media is that smoking in movies often signifies recklessness, and being reckless is cool.
History aside, smoking holds a strong stylistic appeal in cinema, which, says Collee, uses a “Freudian kind of dream language, where some things signify other things”. In Mad Men, the popular series about hard-living advertising executives in 1960s New York, smoking stands in as moral commentary, a metaphor for lead character Don Draper’s shadowy past and heedless chauvinism.
In the 1999 movie, Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s character, a poisonously disillusioned soap salesman named Tyler Durden, smokes so greedily it’s as if he’s eating the cigarette. “His smoking is like saying, ‘Here is a guy who doesn’t much care for his own survival,’ ” Collee says.
In Mad Men, smoking stands in as moral commentary, a metaphor for lead character Don Draper’s shadowy past and heedless chauvinism.
The problem for groups like the Truth Initiative and Smoke Free Media is that smoking in movies often signifies recklessness, and being reckless is cool. The bottom line, says Collee, who worked as a doctor before becoming a writer, “is that, unlike a public health announcement, a drama is essentially non-didactic. To a certain extent, you have to trust your audience to discriminate between a good thing and a bad thing.”
In the 2012 Judd Apatow film, This is 40, the lead female character, Debbie (played by Leslie Mann), has a sneaky smoking habit, puffing away near the bins out the back of her house. When her teenage daughter Sadie discovers her, Debbie is aghast and promises to give up. Like Debbie, today’s filmmakers have been busted smoking. Like Debbie, they have promised to give up. Like Debbie, their heart’s not in it.
Everyone has different ideas about how to fix the problem. India tried to ban all smoking scenes in Bollywood movies in 2005, but failed thanks in part to opposition from the creative community, which argued that it would curb artistic freedom. Instead, all scenes involving smoking are now accompanied by a caption at the bottom of the screen warning viewers that “Smoking is injurious to health”. In Thailand, meanwhile, the act of smoking and cigarette packs are pixelated.
Stan Glantz has long advocated, unsuccessfully, to have all movies with smoking scenes rated R. But prominent Australian anti-tobacco campaigner Simon Chapman believes this would be a mistake, not only because it’s unfeasible (would a minor character smoking one cigarette trigger an R-rating? What about scenes that depict smoking negatively? And what 15-year-old kid takes notice of movie ratings anyway?), but also because having health advocates dictate the content of movies is a really bad idea. “This kind of approach just seems a bit North Korea to me,” he says.
Some of the most memorable anti-smoking messages have come from within the film industry itself. In 1985, the actor Yul Brynner, who had been a smoker since the age of 12 and was then dying of lung cancer, appeared on Good Morning America, imploring the viewers: “Whatever you, just don’t smoke.”
Some of the smoking scenes in The Queen’s Gambit may not have had quite the effect Big Tobacco was hoping for.
Then there is the hit series The Queen’s Gambit, in which sassy chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) rises up the chess world while battling booze and drugs. In one scene, Harmon, hitting rock bottom, stumbles around her house, hopelessly hungover, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She heads to the fridge and grabs a beer, then dances around the kitchen to Shocking Blue’s Venus.
As the song hits full stride – “A goddess on a mountain top, was burning like a silver flame” – Harmon twirls, cigarette in hand, smoke in her hair, and promptly pukes in the sink. Not quite the product placement Big Tobacco might have hoped for.