Anti-Smoke Screen

Los Angeles County is taking its crusade against youth smoking to the silver screen.

The county is running anti-smoking messages in 35 local theaters in a campaign to take the glamour out of smoking. Film scenes showing youthful actors lighting up have been linked to an increase in teenage smoking.

In launching the $500,000 campaign, the county is subtly positioning itself against its most prominent industry. Hollywood has come under increasing attack from tobacco foes for turning out movies that depict smoking as cool.

"No one can take this issue on better than we can," said Ingrid Lamirault, head of the county's anti-smoking program. "We're here and the industry is here."

The Motion Picture Assn. of America, which represents the studios, had no comment.

The county's 3-week-old campaign has received a cool reception from theater chains. Though the county took pains to create inoffensive ads, only General Cinema and a smattering of independent movie houses have accepted them.

Meanwhile, anti-smoking activists have given the ads lukewarm reviews. While praising the county's intentions, they contend that the ads won't do much to discourage smoking.

The campaign was inspired by a year-old UC Irvine study that found that certain anti-smoking commercials can change the way teenagers view smoking in films.

In the study, the percentage of teens describing themselves as pro-smoking declined when they were shown an anti-smoking ad before being shown "Reality Bites," a film in which stars Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke are seldom seen without a cigarette. Among ninth-graders viewing only the film, the percentage of pro-smoking teenagers went up.

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According to Lamirault, the UCI study offered a new way for the county to reach teenagers other than through neighborhood counseling programs. Those anti-smoking programs are funded with revenue from a 25-cent-per-pack cigarette tax approved by voters in 1988.

"One of our main targets is teens," Lamirault said. "Theater ads offered a fresh and different approach."

The county attempted to develop ads acceptable to theater chains, avoiding discussion of health issues and attacks on the film industry.

The 30-second low-key ads, which consist of black-and-white text and no sound, were created by Los Angeles-based Asher/Gould Advertising. They replace the no-smoking announcements that precede feature films.

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The lighthearted spots begin with no-smoking messages and continue with tongue-in-cheek commentary about smoking. One implies that anyone who smokes in a theater might become the subject of a movie: "You could . . . get arrested, and lose your job, and your wife would leave you, and she'd write a book about you and . . . it would get made into a movie."

Another takes a tougher approach, asserting that smoking is stupid: "Everyone knows you can't smoke in movies. And that smoking sucks. Maybe some idiots still don't get it."

According to a recent poll provided by Asher/Gould, movie-goers like the ads. In a survey of 322 patrons conducted by National Research Group, 74% said they liked the messages and 5% said they did not.

"We're not pointing any fingers," said Joel Hochberg, president of Asher/Gould. "We've made an intensive effort to be entertaining. . . . When people see smoking in a feature film, we want something to click--'Smoking is not that great,' " he said.

The ads come amid a debate over smoking in films. Last week, after a meeting with Vice President Al Gore, representatives of the directors, writers and actors unions pledged to make changes while guarding their artistic freedom. Gore told them the connection between films and teenage tobacco use "is very, very clear."

Weeks before, a California lawmaker held hearings in Hollywood to argue that movies needlessly glamorize smoking. Anti-smoking advocates, union representatives and industry lobbyists testified.

State Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), who chaired the hearing, advocated anti-smoking ads in theaters, among other measures.

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Driving the furor is a UC San Francisco study showing that smoking is hot in films. Half the movies released between 1990 and 1995 showed a major character having a smoke. That's up from 29% in the 1970s.

Among the examples cited in the study: Kurt Russell in "Escape From L.A.," Brad Pitt in "Sleepers" and John Travolta in "Michael."

Earlier this year, Massachusetts ran three anti-smoking commercials in Boston-area theaters, including a hard-hitting spot showing a woman whose face and neck had been disfigured by cancer. Only Sony Theatres agreed to run the ads.

While General Cinema and Magic Johnson Theatres--a venture between the former basketball star and Sony--have chosen to run the Los Angeles ads as a public service, other big theater operators declined.

Several chains said they don't have screen time available because they have too many movie trailers to run. In addition, they worry that downbeat or preachy messages would offend moviegoers.

"People go to the movies to escape," said Chan Wood, executive vice president for advertising at Pacific Theatres. "If you smoke, you do not want to see an anti-smoking ad."

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While the MPAA had no comment, movie executives say ads that take on the industry aren't helpful. "I believe the better way is to have constructive discussions with the industry," said Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, after watching one of the ads at a Westwood theater recently.

Tobacco foes have their own concerns. They say the ads are tepid and unfocused--not likely to discourage smoking.

Cornelia Pechmann, the marketing professor who conducted the UCI study, said the text-only spots are not as effective as the live-action commercial she used in her research.

What's more, she said, the ad about breaking the law--you could get arrested, your wife could leave you--lacks a distinct anti-smoking message.

Indeed, two Eagle Rock teenagers who viewed the ad last Sunday while waiting for the start of "Alien Resurrection" missed its larger theme.

"It's about not smoking in theaters," said 14-year-old Omar Centeno. "Which is good--smoke can make you cough."

His 16-year-old sister, Maria, agreed. "The message is, 'Don't smoke in theaters,' " she said.

Though Asher/Gould disputes it, Pechmann said the ad, by depicting smoking as an illegal act, might encourage some teenagers to smoke.

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"The message suggests that by smoking you can rebel," Pechmann said. "Some young people smoke because they want to rebel. Some might view that as a message that glamorizes smoking."

The county doesn't plan to change the text-only format, which it argues is more useful when targeting a diverse audience. Subsequent ads will be more hard-hitting, though.

"It's a beginning," Lamirault said. "We had to find ads the theater chains were comfortable with. Over time, we can produce ads that are more compelling."

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