Lighting Up in the Movies?>
Be Well

Lighting Up in the Movies

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

I’m a big film fan—and if you’re like me, you’re watching more movies these days (on TV or streaming, of course, until theaters re­­open across the country). But I’m not a fan of seeing actors in films lighting up cigarettes or using tobacco in other ways onscreen. Sure, the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Joan Crawford—and those of later decades—were often seen smoking to convey what was considered sophistication and sex appeal back then.

But smoking is neither sophisticated nor sexy, and with what we know about the deadliness of tobacco use, you might think that filmmakers today would go out of their way to refrain from having their characters engage in the bad habit. Not so. According to an updated report from the CDC and the University of California, San Francisco, film depictions of smoking have been on an upswing over the past decade.

While the proportion of top-grossing movies in the U.S. showing actors using tobacco remained stable between 2010 and 2018 (about 45 percent), the number of “tobacco incidents” within them increased 57 percent overall (from 1,824 in 2010 to 2,868 in 2018). Tobacco incidents include the use of cigarettes, cigars, pipes, hookahs, smokeless tobacco products, or e-cigarettes. Nearly one-third of all youth-rated movies (PG-13, PG, G) showed tobacco use, a number that held stable between 2010 and 2018. But most disturbingly, the number of tobacco incidents more than doubled in top-grossing films rated PG-13 (from 564 to 1,241).

Depictions of tobacco use fell significantly (57 percent) in PG-13 fiction movies (511 in 2010 versus 221 in 2018), but they nearly tripled in PG-13-rated biographical dramas in 2018, where, somewhat ironically, the majority of onscreen smokers were fictional characters, not the real people the movies were based on, who may indeed have been smokers back in their day. “These findings,” the report said, “suggest that the increasing number of youth-rated biographical dramas with tobacco incidents has negated previous progress made in reducing tobacco incidents in youth-rated fictional movies.”

Notably, the number of tobacco incidents varied greatly by film company, with great strides made by some and backslides by others. No Disney or Viacom youth-rated films depicted any tobacco use in 2018 (down from 10 and 115 depictions in 2010, respectively), while Sony decreased depictions from 198 to 86. But tobacco incidents were far higher in 2018 compared to 2010 in films from Comcast (73 vs. 19), Time Warner (29 vs. 4), and Fox (327 vs. 96).

Onscreen tobacco use is a particular public health concern, since watching actors light up is known to convert young people into smokers, according to a 2012 Surgeon General’s Report. A proposed intervention would be for the Motion Picture Association of America to assign an R-rating to movies that show tobacco use (unless it is done by an historical figure or depicts the health hazards of tobacco)—a move that would go a long way in reducing, if not eliminating, tobacco incidents in youth-oriented films. At best currently, some movies carry a “rating descriptor” at the start that alerts viewers if they contain smoking (or other depictions like violence or nudity).

The CDC study did not include television content, but a separate analysis, published in Tobacco Control in 2019, documented all the tobacco occurrences in the full seasons of 14 programs airing on TV or online streaming platforms that are popular with young people. It found at least one depiction of tobacco use in 86 percent of them, with Netflix programs having more (1,185) than broadcast or cable shows (482).

If you watch a movie with young children or teens, make this an opportunity to discuss the hazards of smoking. That is, enjoy the films but don’t do as the actors do. The full CDC/UCSF report can be found at the CDC website.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see Light Smoker? You’re Still at Risk.