Movies: Where There's Smoking, There's Ire

Cigarette smoking in movies.

What does an actor have to do on-screen these days to provoke a controversy? Critic David Edelstein has the answer:

In "Avatar," scientist Sigourney Weaver climbs out of a suspended-animation pod and demands a cigarette - which has enflamed an anti-tobacco faction led by Stan Glantz of the UC San Francisco School of Medicine.

Their problem is the film is rated PG-13, and kids are buying tickets by the millions.

Glantz and others are using "Avatar" to renew their call for movies with smoking to get an automatic "R."

Now, you might be thinking, "These health fascists: What are they trying to do to our pop culture?" Movies and vices, especially tobacco, have a stellar history.

Bogie and Bacall in "To Have and Have Not": That's foreplay!

Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in "Now, Voyager": Smooth!

A kneejerk "R" for cigarettes would be a threat to artistic freedom, a restraint on capitalism. It would be Puritanism! Censorship!

Right? Well, no. I think it's a good idea.

Now, let's be clear from the get-go. There should be one culture for all ages, and one for grown-ups. In an R-rated movie, I don't care if people do things too vile to say on TV. I don't care if they eat cigarettes. With kids, it's a different ballgame.

We know from a Dartmouth Medical School study that there's a strong association between adolescent smoking and watching smoking in movies.

"Exposure to Smoking in Movies Influences Kids Lighting Up" (1.14.08)

Tobacco companies have always understood that influence. There was a time when they even made deals to put their products onscreen. It wasn't disclosed publicly, of course . . . it comes out in court when files get subpoenaed.

In the '80s, we learned Phillip Morris paid the makers of "Superman 2" thousands to put its name behind the Man of Steel. Superman is Marlboro Man! Artistic freedom!

In the '90s, companies agreed to stop paying, but there's no way of keeping tabs.

Libertarians make the slippery-slope argument: Next you'll ban alcohol! Car chases!

Well, no. No one's banning anything, just saying, "Kids shouldn't be able to see it so easily."

The MPAA already restricts the language in PG-13 movies and there's no wiggle room: You can shoot someone, but can't use a naughty word for having sex with them. Frankly, I'd rather my kids hear bad words than see their favorite actors bleep their bleeping lungs with bleeping cigarettes.

There should be some wiggle room. No retroactive editing: Bogie keeps his smokes. Films about real figures like Edward R. Murrow might be special cases, although I wish there were a title saying Murrow died of cancer. So did Bogie at 57. So did the actor who played that beloved archetype, the Marlboro Man.

There's no word on Joe Camel, but I heard off the record he's very sick.

A Joe Camel biopic that ends in the ICU? PG-13.

For more info:
Smoke-Free Movies (UC San Francisco School of Medicine)
The Projectionist (David Edelstein's Movie Blog)