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Published: Sunday, 8/31/2003

Those smoke-filled plots

Go to the movies these days and you'll find a key element in almost every story: The characters smoke.

This is no accident. What better way for the tobacco companies to recruit legions of new customers than by glamorizing smoking for impressionable young people?

While it is difficult to prove a direct cause-and-effect, the attorneys general of 24 states have petitioned Hollywood to show less smoking in the movies in hopes it will help reduce cigarette use among youths.

“We are hopeful you will use your best efforts again here to rally the industry from being a source of the problem,” said a letter from the state officials to Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. “Simply by reducing the depiction of smoking in movies, the industry can protect our nation's youth from the known perils of smoking.”

If only it were that simple. The supposed glamor and sophistication of smoking has been emphasized on the silver screen since virtually the invention of moving pictures. The practice became engrained from the 1930s on and has hardly gone away, even as smoking has declined to less than a third of the general population.

The movie industry claims to have ended the practice of tobacco product-placement fees and giving actors financial incentives to smoke on-screen, but recent studies indicate otherwise.

According to the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California at San Francisco, smoking is featured in 82 percent of current top-grossing films rated PG-13, 76 percent of those rated R, and 39 percent of those rated PG.

A study led by a Dartmouth Medical School researcher surveyed more than 3,500 nonsmoking children aged 10-14 over two years and found that those most exposed to movies in which the characters smoked were more likely to initiate the habit themselves.

The study, published in June in the journal Lancet, was careful not to claim a direct causal relationship but still concluded that the results “provide strong evidence that viewing smoking in movies promotes smoking initiation among adolescents.”

Critics would argue that artistic license gives filmmakers the leave to depict pretty much anything they want. Still, arguments against censorship weaken themselves when used to justify gratuitous use of tobacco.

For example, it's one thing to depict smoking in a film like Seabiscuit, a story that takes place in an era when many adults routinely lit up, but quite another to feature it in Uptown Girls, a contemporary comedy aimed at girls and young women.

This is a concept that should be easily understood by filmmakers, unless they have motives other than artistic ones for glamorizing the use of tobacco.



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