What is the relationship between media and smoking?

Quick Answer
The depiction of smoking in film, television, and news programs powerfully shapes attitudes and beliefs about smoking. This depiction significantly affects individual decisions about whether or not to smoke.
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Smoking in Film

In 2009, a furor of public disapproval followed actor Sigourney Weaver’s smoking scenes in the PG-13 rated blockbuster film Avatar . The smoking scenes involving the character Dr. Augustine were lambasted not only as illogical for portraying a smoking doctor but also as gratuitous, inasmuch as the scenes contributed nothing to the storyline. Director James Cameron responded to the criticism by saying that portraying Weaver as a smoking scientist revealed her as a conflicted and flawed character.

The American public takes for granted that smoking is likely in R-rated films, but it becomes increasingly difficult for directors to justify smoking scenes in films rated G, PG, or PG-13, given that minors make up the most likely audience for these films. In 2007, after decades of prompting by antismoking activists, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) acquiesced and said that it would take into account during the ratings process all superfluous smoking scenes, those scenes deemed unnecessary in creating historical authenticity or in the telling of the film’s narrative. Regardless, the MPAA is still criticized by parents and antismoking activists for not taking smoking in films and its negative influence on young people more seriously.

Although smoking had always been portrayed by Hollywood on screen to some degree, it was in the early 1940s, during World War II, that smoking in film experienced an explosion in popularity, which accelerated throughout the 1950s. With smoking’s health risks still largely unknown by the public at the time, and with free cigarettes being distributed to US troops by the military, smoking came to be regarded more and more as an affordable luxury, hedonistic and provocative and sensually gratifying.

Women, newly representative of the American workforce, were depicted onscreen as seductive, liberated, sexual, and erotic smokers. Hollywood studios received compensation from tobacco companies for on-screen endorsements. Female stars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Betty Grable exuded glamour and sex appeal while smoking on screen. Leading men such as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Spencer Tracy personified masculinity as they smoked their way through scene after scene.

By the 1990s, however, some Hollywood stars, recognizing their responsibility as role models for young people, began to resist. Pierce Brosnan, for instance, who had smoked repeatedly as the character James Bond in previous films, vowed that he would never again smoke on screen playing that role; producers conceded, and Brosnan continued to play the role of James Bond, but newly smoke-free. This is significant because researchers have found a direct correlation between seeing tobacco use depicted in films and trying cigarettes among adolescents. Higher levels of exposure to smoking in films are associated with an increased likelihood of trying cigarettes, even when researchers controlled for age, school performance, gender, and the smoking habits of family members or friends.

Smoking on Television

Before the passage by the US Congress of the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act in 1970, which banned all television and radio advertising of cigarettes, cigarette advertisements were a pervasive feature of American television programming. Winston, Camel, Marlboro, and Tareyton were just a few of the ubiquitous tobacco sponsors of television shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

For many years, the longest running Western on television, Gunsmoke , which was sponsored by Winston cigarettes, was introduced with the slogan “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” The Marlboro Man television advertising campaign, in particular, is often cited as the single most successful advertising campaign in history. At a time when Westerns like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Wagon Train, and The Rifleman dominated television ratings, the image of the Marlboro Man, a cowboy figure from the Old West, resonated with the American public in a profound sense like no other image. Consequently, Marlboro cigarettes became the best-selling brand, not only in the United States but also in countries with consumers who connected with the cowboy archetype.

The two actors who portrayed the Marlboro Man, Wayne McLaren and David McLean, both developed cancer and died as a result of smoking. After being diagnosed with cancer, both men launched antismoking public-service campaigns, informing the public that their illness was directly attributable to smoking. After his death from lung cancer in 1995, McLean’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Philip Morris, the manufacturer and distributor of Marlboro cigarettes.

Commercials were the primary advertisers of cigarettes and smoking, but television shows did their part too. Ashtrays and cigarettes were omnipresent props on set, including those of talk shows and game shows. This type of advertising is now called product placement.

In the early 1960s, members of the most popular entertainment group, dubbed the Rat Pack, held a lit cigarette in one hand and a glass of alcohol in the other, while they sang, danced, joked, and acted their way to stardom. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop were emblematic of their time. Almost ten years later, attitudes had changed little, as evidenced by the television show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The show’s hosts and characters each week held lit cigarettes and alcoholic beverages throughout the show.

With the advent of the cigarette brand Virginia Slims in 1968, whose slogan announced to women, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” more and more women similarly were depicted on television as smokers. Smoking became a sign of female equality, liberation, and independence. After January 2, 1971, when cigarette advertising was banned on television and radio, Virginia Slims, Marlboro, and other brands were relegated primarily to print media and billboards.

Television, especially in later decades, began to provide a venue for public service and antismoking campaigns. Television and film stars, such as Yul Brynner and many others in the mid-1980s, made powerful and moving antismoking commercials for the American Cancer Society. Brynner, throughout his career, was seen on television either smoking or holding a cigarette. Shortly after his death from lung cancer, a commercial revealing a frail and ravaged Brynner urged American audiences to avoid smoking, attributing his premature death from lung cancer to cigarettes.

Smoking and the News Media

The news media reports on issues of smoking and tobacco. Sometimes, the news media itself is the source of that news.

In 1995 the CBS newsmagazine show 60 Minutes became a source of controversy after learning from Jeffrey Wigand, the vice president of research and development at Brown and Williamson tobacco company, that Brown and Williamson had consistently lied about the dangerous threats posed to health by tobacco and had deliberately deceived the public for decades. In April 2005, ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings announced on the air that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Viewers reacted with shock and disbelief. Jennings, who had smoked for years and then quit, confessed to his viewers that after the enormous stress of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he had been “weak” and had resumed smoking. Less than four months after making this revelation on air, Jennings died of lung cancer.

Jennings’s story marked one of the latest in a long line of television journalists to succumb to the effects of smoking. For decades, news anchors read the news with cigarette in hand, as an ashtray rested conveniently near the microphone. Legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, who was rarely seen without a cigarette, died in 1965 of lung cancer. NBC national news anchor Chet Huntley, also seen nightly smoking a cigarette while delivering the news, died of lung cancer in 1974. More recently, in 2007, television news anchor Tom Snyder, who also had appeared on television holding a cigarette, died of leukemia.


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