Cigarettes: Smoldering Issue in Film?

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood films could be a new battleground in the nation’s war on smoking.

Several congressmen and anti-smoking groups at a legislative conference here said they will push in the 101st Congress for restrictions on cigarette advertising and promotion, including a possible ban on payments to film makers to feature cigarette brands.

One lawmaker at the weekend conference, Rep. Tom Luken (D-Ohio), announced an inquiry to determine if cigarette makers, like other businesses, pay movie companies to feature their products in specific scenes.

Luken, who sponsored a failed bill in the last Congress to ban all cigarette ads and promotion, was among seven congressmen who gathered here with members of health groups, including the American Medical Assn. and American Lung Assn., to set a smoking control agenda for the new Congress.


He released a copy of a Jan. 25 letter asking the six major U.S. cigarette makers to disclose names of any movies in which they paid to have their brands appear on screen.

Luken, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Hazardous Materials, asked for the list by Feb. 10, along with a copy of agreements between cigarette manufacturers and film makers. The request covers all movies made in the last 10 years. Luken also asked the companies to disclose whether any scripts were changed to include smoking scenes.

But the nation’s two largest cigarette makers, Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco’s Reynolds tobacco unit, denied that they pay to place their brands in films. The other companies could not be reached.

Company policy “prohibits our paying to have our products placed in movies,” said Betsy Annese, a vice president for communications with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Annese said she did not know how long the policy has been in effect.

“We don’t pay money to get cigarettes in movies or cigarette signage in movies,” said Tom Ricke, director of corporate communications for Philip Morris Cos. Inc., adding that the policy had been in effect “for at least 10 years.” Ricke said the company occasionally agrees to requests from film makers for cigarettes and signs, and has “from time to time provided, as a courtesy, promotional clothing to cast and crew.”

It is a common practice for businesses to use motion pictures as advertising vehicles. Anti-smoking groups accuse cigarette makers of using films as a way to promote smoking without interference from warning labels or the ban on broadcast advertising.

A Luken aide said he believed this is the first time a congressional panel has sought information about possible promotional arrangements between tobacco companies and film makers.

“We want to find out the extent to which the merchants of addiction are paying the film producers to get cigarettes used in movies,” Luken said in a prepared statement. “This practice is a subtle way of getting young people to smoke and also has the effect of circumventing the federal ban on cigarette advertising on television,” he charged.

Luken’s interest was aroused by an item in a back issue of Philip Morris Magazine, a glossy publication of general articles and smokers’ rights editorials distributed free to 12 million subscribers. The magazine’s winter, 1987, issue, attacked a proposed ban on cigarette advertising and promotion as potentially harmful to the film industry.

The proposed ban “ignores, apparently by design, the reality of film making today,” the magazine said. “It is no coincidence that one manufacturer’s ice cream, car, clothing, computer, cola, cosmetics, stereo, cigarette, beer, etc. is displayed exclusively in any given film. Featuring a particular brand name throughout a film is a significant and rapidly growing source of revenue for film makers.”

Ricke, the Philip Morris spokesman, said these statements were “meant to be a general description of the practices” of movie and consumer products companies. “It wasn’t meant to describe Philip Morris’ policies.”

Luken called the firm’s explanation “strange.” He added that “people don’t usually defend a practice unless they’re involved.”

“There’s certainly enough here for us to ask the questions,” Luken said. “If they’re not (paying to feature their brands), we’ll move on to other issues.”

The president of a firm that places products in movies said he approached ad agencies for “two or three” cigarette makers last year about possible movie deals, but struck out each time.

“They don’t want to touch it, with cash, with a 10-foot pole,” said Ed Mintz, president of Van Nuys-based CinemaScore. “It was such a hard, closed door.”

Mintz said he had a “gut feeling” such deals have been worked out before, although he had “never seen a contract.”

Mintz said films may be a good vehicle for cigarette brands, which are more readily recalled by audiences than some other consumer products. He said his survey research showed that Philip Morris’ Marlboro brand, the world’s largest seller, pictured in “Alien Nation” and “Midnight Run,” was recalled by 68% and 62%, respectively, of those who saw those films. He said 40% of those who saw “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” recalled American Tobacco’s Lucky Strike brand, while 21% of “Tequila Sunrise” patrons remembered American’s Malibu brand.