What to Do About Hollywood, Tobacco's Smoldering Affair

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fighting secondhand smoke for nearly 25 years, I've learned the enemy isn't the poor smoker. It's the tobacco industry. Big Tobacco knows its future riches depend, more than anything else, on social acceptance. Without it, ashtrays will go the way of the spittoon. But acceptance must be constantly manufactured. And Hollywood has always been in on the act.

Soon after I started working for clean indoor air, I realized the reason that clean indoor air was such a crucial issue to the tobacco industry was that smoking restrictions of any kind undermined the social acceptability of smoking and made it harder for the tobacco industry to recruit new smokers and keep current smokers addicted. In contrast to the health groups, who saw smoking as a medical issue, the tobacco industry has always seen smoking as a cultural issue.

And there is no better way to control pop culture worldwide than through movies. Tobacco mass marketing and Hollywood pop culture grew up together, businesslike twins joined at the hip. For 80 years the tobacco industry has addicted hundreds of millions of men and women with the help of Hollywood movies--and, later, TV--that portrayed smoking as glamorous, sexy, adult. Stars once explicitly endorsed tobacco brands in magazine ads and TV commercials. Now they implicitly endorse brands by using them in the movies. There's actually been an upswing in movie smoking over the last few years. Is it corruption? Or stupidity?

It's the rich, powerful and glamorous who smoke in the movies, when in reality it's the depressed, poor and less educated who smoke. It doesn't matter if the good guys or the bad guys smoke. Large studies have shown that the more smoking in the movies kids see, the more likely they are to start smoking.

Hollywood and Big Tobacco's incestuous affair puts the film "Chinatown" to shame. The secret history, uncovered in tons of corporate files produced by recent lawsuits, shows the two industries colluded to get around the 1970 TV ban on tobacco advertising. L.A.'s biggest PR firms brokered endorsements with some of the film industry's biggest names. Publicity was bought for as little as free cartons. This hasn't stopped. Vanity Fair's Oscar party this year featured bowls of free cigarettes, whose generous donors hope paparazzi will snap the smoking stars. (Documents supporting this can be found on our Web site listed below.)

The handshake deal was to keep big stars publicly smoking, place tobacco brands on the scene and include tobacco advertising in the frame. Just as important, the tobacco industry pushed negative images out. On-screen smoking was supposed to project fantasies of sexuality and power, good or bad, always dramatic--never the ugly, banal realities of addiction, disease and death.

As you might expect, the seduction was mutual. Here's how one producer shrewdly, accurately pitched RJ Reynolds: "Film is better than any commercial that has been run on television or in any magazine because the audience is totally unaware of any sponsor involvement."

By the late 1980s, things got so giddy that one star agreed to take $500,000 from Brown & Williamson Tobacco to show its brands in his next five movies. Meanwhile, rival Philip Morris agreed to pay $350,000 to have James Bond smoke Larks. Even Superman was implicated--Lois Lane chain-smoked Marlboros and Superman II saved the world by bursting from a giant Marlboro logo.

Shaken by congressional hearings on such shenanigans in 1989, Big Tobacco promised to stop paying for smoking in the movies. They promised again in 1998 when they settled tobacco litigation brought by the states.

But the plot has only thickened since then. There is actually more smoking in the movies now than 10 years ago, before the tobacco industry's voluntary ban on smoking in the movies. And the brands most heavily advertised in other media are the ones most likely to show up on the big screen. Hollywood covets the 18-to-24-year-old demographic, and so does Big Tobacco. Coincidence? Marlboro scores the most screen appearances in Hollywood movies; it also owns the market of young, new smokers.

U.S. teens aren't the only victims. Hollywood movies offer a major marketing vehicle for Big Tobacco overseas. Outside the American media spotlight, celebrities such as Antonio Banderas and Charlie Sheen have shilled for Parliament (Philip Morris, yet again) in TV spots and print ads from Japan to Argentina. How can we possibly believe that Hollywood has sworn off Big Tobacco?

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Tobacco companies are longtime liars and deniers, so we can hardly turn to them for candor. As late as 1994, their executives swore under oath that nicotine wasn't addictive. They certainly didn't come fully clean about their Hollywood connections in 1989. But what about the Hollywood community? Why is it serving a racket that's buried many of its most gifted members and continues to kill 3 million people each year?

Perhaps we should pity A-list stars who confuse their own addictions with valid artistic choices--and insist on smoking while cameras roll. Maybe we should cock a cliched eyebrow at directors and writers who lazily rely on what Stella Adler called "cigarette acting" to build character. Or maybe we should ask if Hollywood studios--many of them now part of huge media conglomerates--are quietly stroking the tobacco industry for advertising heavily in magazines belonging to the same corporate litter. Payola, after all, is effective only if it can't be seen.

Because of concern over the growing pro-tobacco influence of movies, I have spent the last 10 years quietly attending meetings and conferences with people from the entertainment industry trying to "raise consciousness" about this problem. As a professor, I also value creativity and intellectual freedom and hoped to make progress through quiet discussion. While I met many good people, the power structure in the movie industry simply repeated the same sort of hackneyed arguments about the 1st Amendment that we hear so often from their friends in the tobacco industry. This isn't about the 1st Amendment or freedom of expression, and the solution isn't censorship, a cure as bad as the disease.

We know people were crassly paid off in the past. We know there's more smoking in movies now than before. We also know that smoking doesn't sell movie tickets. It sells cigarettes to kids who watch PG-13- and R-rated movies and videos. Knowing all that--and knowing Big Tobacco so well--I propose four modest but effective fixes:

* Certify in the end credits that nobody on the production received anything of value--cash, loans, smokes, publicity, nada--in exchange for using or displaying tobacco.

* Require genuinely strong anti-tobacco advertisements--not produced by the tobacco industry or its fronts--to run before films with any tobacco presence. This will help immunize audiences without intruding on the film's content.

* Stop identifying brands. For leads like Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts to smoke a Marlboro or any other brand on screen is worth far, far more to Big Tobacco than a traditional advertisement.

* Rate any film with smoking an R. Kids who start smoking say they expect to quit within five years. They don't. One-third will eventually die from tobacco--far more than from gun violence, let alone foul language in a film.

None of these four measures requires government action. None will choke creativity or restrict content. Each will make American movies much less complicit in the global tobacco epidemic.

Now what's the excuse?

Note: Copies of the anti-smoking-in-movies advertisement and supporting research are on the Internet at http://smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu

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Stanton Glantz is professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and author of "The Cigarette Papers and Tobacco War" (UC Press). He is the sponsor of ads that have run recently in various newspapers and trade publications condemning smoking in movies and Hollywood's relationship with the tobacco industry.

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