Armed with new evidence of a growing trend, a veteran state lawmaker will conduct a hearing Monday at Hollywood's doorstep to argue that movies needlessly glamorize smoking for impressionable youngsters.
Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) has lined up witnesses who will charge that, by just watching screen stars smoke, young audiences are lured into lighting up.
"Hollywood's increasingly common depictions of characters smoking on screen sends kids an entirely dangerous message that it's cool to smoke," said Burton.
Burton, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he lacks the power, or the desire, to legislate against the entertainment industry.
But he said that by presenting witnesses who will draw attention to the consequences, he hopes to "heighten awareness" among filmmakers who employ smoking for dramatic effect. He said he is counting on "responsible people in the industry to do the right thing."
Burton's hearing at the Screen Actors Guild offices in Los Angeles represents another front on which government has sought to influence mass entertainment content.
Since last year, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined demands from parent groups to rate sex, violence and rough language on TV. Federal law enacted in 1996 warned that the government would impose ratings if the industry did not do so on its own.
The pressure resulted in self-imposed rating practices by most television networks that are now viewable on TV screens.
Since then, Gore and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton also have spoken out against the amount of smoking seen in movies and TV.
Though none who were approached for this article would comment in person, several directors and actors are known to oppose attempts to get them to cut back on using smoking as a dramatic prop, despite possible consequences for their audiences.
Nationwide, 3,000 youths every day start smoking, according to Jennifer Perry, executive director of Children's Action Network. The organization encourages movie makers to show the dangers, rather than the allure, of smoking.
Two recent academic studies argue that movies more often glamorize smoking. One study showed a sharp rise in smoking in films, the other offered evidence that minors are directly influenced.
By the mid-1990s, according to new data from UC San Francisco researchers, smoking among lead actors was on the rise in top-grossing films, running four times the rate of smoking among the population at large.
A co-author of that study, Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of medicine who co-wrote "The Cigarette Papers," which accused the industry of covering up the dangers of smoking, is among those scheduled to testify at Burton's public hearing.
Glantz and fellow researcher Theresa F. Stockwell conceded the difficulty of cutting the on-screen smoking habit, "given concerns about freedom of speech and the need for artistic freedom in making films."
But the fact is, they said, movies in particular "are promoting tobacco use."
TV is less smoky, research shows. A 1995 study by the American Lung Assn. found that of the movies reviewed, smoking occurred five times as much as in television episodes reviewed.
The effects of smoking by attractive movie characters is not lost on young audiences, concludes marketing professor Cornelia Pechmann of UC Irvine in her 1995 study of 800 Southern California ninth graders.
In one comparison, Pechmann reported, students were shown the movie "Reality Bites" in which actors Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke light up in 14 out of 40 scenes.
Before watching the movie, some students were also shown an anti-smoking TV ad produced by the California Department of Health Services.
Designed to be humorous but telling, the ad features high school-aged "Clifford," wearing a gas mask, while in the background stands a frazzled, aging figure in a cheerleader outfit, puffing a cigarette.
"We used to date," a forlorn Clifford tells the audience. "Now we're just friends."
As a rule, Pechmann said, those who saw the anti-smoking spot, then the film, described smoking as "gross, dirty and stupid." Those who watched "Reality Bites" but didn't see the ad "came out thinking smoking was OK," she said.
A "good idea," said Burton, might be to screen caution notices similar to those required by federal law on cigarette packaging and tobacco advertising.
Cited as another example of the conspicuous use of smoking in movies, actor John Travolta smoked in the recent films "Get Shorty," "Broken Arrow," "Michael," "Pulp Fiction" and "She's So Lovely."
Travolta's spokeswoman, Michelle Bega, defended the star's on-screen portrayal of the habit--he is a nonsmoker otherwise--as "an artistic choice associated with a specific character in a specific film." Travolta will not smoke, she said, in his next two films.
Another defender of the artistic prerogative is Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed "Men in Black," which contained a scene of aliens wheeling packs of Marlboros across the screen.
On questions of outside controls, Sonnenfeld has been quoted as asking, sarcastically, whether the cartoon character Road Runner should never again be shown dropping an anvil on Wily Coyote's head.
Not all smoking on screen should stop, said Sen. Burton, a former smoker, but he said much of it seems "gratuitous."
Actor Richard Masur, president of the Screen Actors Guild, who also will testify at Burton's hearing, said some on-screen smoking simply defies credibility. He cited the example of the "cop, a heavy smoker, chasing a bad guy down the street . . . and never drawing a harsh breath."
However, said Masur, "None of us is interested in [telling filmmakers], 'Don't do this.' " He said actors, writers and directors frequently discuss that "smoking has consequences and should be portrayed thoughtfully and realistically."
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, and Sherry Lansing, chairwoman of Paramount Pictures, in conjunction with a cancer-fighting campaign, head a task force devoted, in part, to finding "new ways . . . to reduce tobacco use" in films.
Burton has said he is not impressed with that effort, and wants to make his own inquiries, inviting comments from Glantz, Pechmann and others who argue that something other than friendly persuasion is called for.
Tobacco interests strongly disagree, said Tom Lauria, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Tobacco Institute. Cigarette makers, he said, no longer pay studios to show smoking, by brand or otherwise, in movies--a practice commonly in use until about 1990.
But the industry opposes on-screen health warnings against smoking, Lauria said.
If such warnings are justified, he said, there should be similar messages aimed at "violence, nudity, drinking, adult content, furs and any other politically incorrect objet d'art" portrayed in movies.