- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Melissa Havard learned a valuable lesson one Halloween about the influence of smoking in films. The live-action movie "101 Dalmatians," featuring a dyspeptic performance by Glenn Close as villainous Cruella De Vil, was released in December 1996.
"She had the long cigarette thing going on," says Ms. Havard, director of the entertainment initiative for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Office on Smoking and Health.
"The next year at Halloween, I [greeted] a bunch of 8-year-old girls dressed as Cruella with a long cigarette," she recalls. "Nobody dressed up like the good guy."
That memory illustrates the debate over the impact of smoking in movies and television shows. Those children with their pretend cigarettes weren't actual smokers, and were they to develop the habit years later, it would be impossible to say for sure whether that experience had helped fuel their decision.
Yet anti-smoking advocates argue that a steady stream of smoking characters in entertainment gives smoking an implicit stamp of approval.
Films including "The Royal Tenenbaums," "In the Bedroom" and "My Best Friend's Wedding" all show key characters lighting up to bond, grapple with the death of a loved one or just blow off steam. Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show" features a cigar-chomping protagonist.
A joint research project by Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H., last December linked smoking in movies to adolescents taking up smoking. Researchers polled about 5,000 middle school students, ages 9 to 15, from Vermont and New Hampshire. They found that nearly 32 percent of the students who had seen movies with high smoking rates had tried cigarettes, while just 5 percent of those who had seen films with few smoking sequences said they had lit up at one point.
The research, funded by the National Cancer Institute, also found teens with the most exposure to movie smoking were more than 2 times as likely to pick up smoking as those with minor exposure to cinematic smoke scenes.
Frank Vespe, executive director of the District-based nonprofit TV Turnoff Network, says what people see on television and at the movies has an effect on their behavior and attitudes, from violence to sexual behavior and stereotyping.
Smoking is no different, says Mr. Vespe, whose group sponsors TV Turnoff Week the last week of April each year and preaches the power of viewers reclaiming their lives without television to guide them.
"If we're continually seeing smoking in the media, we'll see it as normal," he says. "I do think it's a more subtle thing. You don't watch a TV show, see a character smoking and say, 'I need to go get a cigarette.'"
Ms. Havard's office recently completed a curriculum aimed at students at high schools and performing arts colleges to educate them on the topic.
Mailers soon will be sent out to schools nationwide offering the curriculum at no charge. The materials also will be available through the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/tobacco) at the end of the month.
"It's designed to inspire critical thinking on the idea of social responsibility. It's not designed to give them right or wrong answers," Ms. Havard says.
For example, the curriculum includes data from the American Lung Association's Thumbs Up; Thumbs Down project, which had teens review 350 movies. The study revealed that 28 percent of the films featured moments in which tobacco use could be seen as either sexy, exciting, powerful, sophisticated or celebratory.
The lessons could be incorporated into social studies classes during lectures on constitutional issues, she suggests, or they could be brought up during creative-writing sessions.
"This is piggybacking on the whole concept of media literacy," Ms. Harvard says.
In some politically correct circles, images of famous people smoking are snuffed out for fear of influencing the young.
In 1999, the U.S. Postal Service altered an image of artist Jackson Pollock used for a 33-cent stamp. The cigarette dangling from his mouth, a familiar sight to those who knew the artist, suddenly disappeared.
The CDC's new curriculum doesn't carry any regulatory claims. "We're not trying to control content," Ms. Havard says.
Not everyone shares her approach to the topic.
"Ideally, I'd like to see no smoking in movies," says Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, who has been waging war with the tobacco industry since 1978.
"There are some times where the smoking is integral to the plot, but I never saw a movie where you'd absolutely need a cigarette," Mr. Glantz says.
The professor says more actors are smoking on-screen today than a decade ago.
One could blame lazy writing it's easier to depict a conflicted character by making him or her smoke than to construct dialogue to portray that emotion.
Mr. Glantz cautions that using cigarette smoking as a shortcut to a character's inner turmoil is both irresponsible and poor filmmaking.
"There are many other ways to show their emotions," he says. "Many of those things [involving smoking] are cliche and not even accurate anymore."
"The kind of people smoking [in film and on television] are the rich, the powerful. Those are not the kind of people who are smoking, by and large," he says.
His Smoke Free Movies campaign (www.smokefreemovies. ucsf.edu) seeks to slap an R rating on any film depicting smoking and to feature an anti-smoking advertisement before each showing.
He credits screenwriter and lifelong smoker Joe Eszterhas for stoking the current debate.
The screenwriter responsible for 1992's "Basic Instinct," in which a smoking Sharon Stone sets the screen ablaze with her sensual charms, says his own battles with smoking-related cancer made him see the light.
"He was one of the real bad guys on [smoking on-screen]," Mr. Glantz says of Mr. Eszterhas, who can barely speak because of his damaged larynx. "For him to come out and say this is a mistake has shaken people up in the community."
In the past, Mr. Glantz says, cigarette manufacturers paid film studios to place their products within plain sight in movie scenes. "In the '80s, the tobacco industry denied they were encouraging smoking in the movies that was a lie," he says.
Today, the fallout from lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers forbids such practices. Richmond-based Philip Morris spokesman Tom Ryan says his company hasn't made any product-placement deals for more than a decade.
"We routinely get requests, and we routinely decline any involvement," he says. "We're prohibited from doing so."
The reasons people smoke are "pretty complex," Mr. Ryan says, ranging from peer pressure to negative self-esteem.
"Film and TV executives should think very carefully about putting things in films that kids will see," he says. "We encourage the debate [about on-screen smoking]. It's something that should be discussed."
Deirdre Imershein, producer of the new documentary "Scene Smoking: Cigarettes, Cinema and the Myth of the Cool," says smoking "is a really normal behavior in the movie community."
A-list actors smoke at table readings seated rehearsals sometimes when children are present, Ms. Imershein says, and a producer must think twice before telling a star to snuff out a cigarette.
"Very few people will say to an A-list star, 'I'm not gonna roll camera with a cigarette in your mouth,'" she says.
The documentary, which will air Nov. 21 on the Discovery Channel, the day of the annual Great American Smokeout, looks at the First Amendment versus social responsibility.
The special taps Sean Penn, a smoker on- and off-screen, and directors Richard Donner and Rob Reiner, an outspoken critic of smoking in film, for their thoughts.
Mr. Reiner goes on record to say no films made by his production company, Castle Rock Entertainment, can include characters who are smoking unless the artist personally justifies the need for it to him.
That said, "You can't just come in and say, 'smoking must be banned from film,'" says Ms. Imershein, a former actress whose documentary will be available to order free on the CDC Web site later this month. "You need to educate the industry."
Sometimes on-screen smoking makes little sense, she says. Miss Roberts' character in "Wedding"
smokes even though she is a food critic and needs a refined palate unblemished by cigarettes.
Actor John Carroll Lynch, who plays Drew Carey's brother on ABC's "The Drew Carey Show," turned his personal smoking addiction into a character trait in the film "Volcano." Ms. Imershein says his character employed a nicotine patch rather than smoke throughout the film.
She understands how hard it is for a smoking actor in Hollywood.
"I thought Jessica Lange made it look like the sexiest thing in the world in 'Frances,' the way the smoke came off her tongue," she says.
Her documentary, Ms. Imershein hopes, will help shatter that image and ignite a constructive debate on the subject.
"It's a film that causes a lot of arguments. That's great. It's a great way to learn," she says.
The www.screenit.com Web site, created by an independent husband-and-wife team concerned about media images, lists detailed accounts of a variety of elements for parents to consider, including levels of smoking shown in a film.


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