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Silver Screens & Cigarettes


"Mad Men" character Betty Francis, played by January Jones, casually smokes a cigarette.

CREDIT: Flickr / TillyVanilly

The recent announcement that the FDA would be mandating more graphic labels for cigarette packages reignited the debate about how far the government should go in its anti-smoking efforts. But one important factor in the fight against big tobacco, often taken for granted, was decided over four decades ago: regulations on depictions of smoking in film and television.

In 1970, Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned all cigarette advertising on television and radio. Though the act didn’t specifically regulate the film industry, Hollywood responded to the wave of anti-cigarette health reports; as time passed, cinematic smokers turned from heroes to villains, and eventually they stopped appearing altogether.

The tension in recent decades between big tobacco and Hollywood is made explicit in 2005’s Thank You For Smoking. In a representative scene, after complaining that the only smokers in left modern film are RAVs (“Russians, Arabs, and Villains”) Thank You For Smoking protagonist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) discusses product placement with Hollywood bigwig Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe):

Nick: What we need is a smoking role model. A real winner.
Jeff: Indiana Jones meets Jerry Maguire.
Nick: Right. On two packs a day.
Jeff: Only he can’t live in contemporary society.
Nick: Why not?
Jeff:  The health issue’s way too prevalent. People would constantly be asking the character why he’s smoking. And that should go unsaid.

In the end, Jeff’s solution is a film set in the future, starring Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones, at a distant time when “smokers and nonsmokers live in perfect harmony.” But in the real world, Hollywood hasn’t turned to the future; it’s turned to the past, where smoking can easily be defended as realism.

The most obvious example of this trend – though by no means the only one – is AMC’s Mad Men. To its credit, Mad Men directly addresses the health risk of cigarettes – right away, in its pilot episode (titiled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which could easily serve as an alternate title for the series in general). Mad Men introduces series protagonist Don Draper in the midst of professional crisis: his top client, Lucky Strike cigarettes, is seeing sales drop after the publication of a Reader’s Digest article about the dangers of smoking. Mad Men invites us to sneer at the cynical Lucky Strike executives, who roll their eyes at the Reader’s Digest article as they cough through their morning cigarettes.

But Mad Men’s relationship with cigarettes is more complicated than it may initially appear; though the series has its cake, it often eats it, too. Consider a scene from last season’s “The Summer Man.” Don Draper stands on the street – suit perfectly pressed, dark sunglasses, not a hair out of place – and lights up a cigarette as The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” roars over the soundtrack.

Who could watch this scene and not want to be Don? And—more to the point—who could watch this scene without wanting a cigarette?

It’s not just Mad Men. Consider Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris, which is currently on track to become his highest-grossing film ever. Marion Cotillard’s stunning, sensuous Adriana spends much of the film with a cigarette in her hands. Her smoking is sexy and romantic—part of her mysterious charm. And the organization that rates movies, the MPAA, fully acknowledges the potential impact; Midnight in Paris received a PG-13 rating for “some sexual references and smoking.”

Of course, it’s easy enough to excuse both Mad Men and Midnight in Paris: a high-powered advertising executive in the 1960s, or a free-spirited artist’s muse in the 1920s, would almost certainly have smoked. But that doesn’t necessarily account for how often Mad Men goes out of its way to make smoking look sexy, or how much Midnight in Paris seems to fetishize every sultry puff.

In many ways, cigarettes and Hollywood make a perfect pair. There’s nothing sexy about snorting a line of cocaine, or shooting up a needle full of heroin. But cigarettes have always had the extra element of looking cool. Picture Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca – sitting at the bar, smoke billowing languorously around him. Or Sean Connery’s James Bond, lighting up a cigarette at the baccarat table before he coolly dispatches an enemy with a quip and a turn of the cards. These are powerful images, and they stick with us for a reason. It may sound trite on the surface, but it’s a huge mistake to dismiss the “cool” factor; after all, it’s the thing that continues to get thousands of people – particularly young people – hooked on cigarettes.

It was reported earlier today that calls to smoking quit lines spiked after the new, graphic warning labels were implemented. The reverse is true; films and TV shows that make smoking look sexy encourage us – either bluntly or subliminally – to romanticize an act that leads to an estimated 443,000 deaths per year in the United States alone. Realism in film and television is important. But it doesn’t trump responsibility. 

Scott Meslow is a staff writer for Campus Progress. He can be reached at

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