Ad Banned, but Smoking on Screen Isn’t


If there’s anywhere anyone can advertise about anything, it’s Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. In the past few weeks I’ve spotted ads for a Greek Cruising Palace yacht rental, cage-free dog kennels, crew jacket catalogs and--talk about throwing away your money--”for your consideration” Oscar ads for “Planet of the Apes”

But there’s one ad neither of the Hollywood trades will run--the latest broadside from Smoke Free Movies, a health advocacy group that’s been at the forefront of a no-holds-barred campaign against the proliferation of cigarette smoking in movies. Led by UC San Francisco School of Medicine professor Stanton Glantz, a pit bull-like anti-smoking activist, Smoke Free Movies has run a series of ads in publications including the New York Times detailing what it calls Hollywood’s “sordid history of trading cash, goods and publicity” for glamorizing smoking in movies. Citing its studies, which have found smoking on screen today more frequent than it has been since the early 1960s, the organization advocates giving an R rating to any movie that features tobacco use.

Variety ran the organization’s earlier ads, including one that pictured studio chiefs whom Glantz blames for creating a movie environment that promotes smoking to global audiences. But Variety rejected the latest Smoke Free Movies ad, which attacked Miramax’s “In the Bedroom” for “gratuitously promoting Marlboro brand cigarettes,” noting that the film’s co-star, Sissy Spacek, is seen specifically asking a grocer in one scene for Marlboro Lights.


Glantz says Variety never voiced a complaint about the ad until an ABC News reporter who’d interviewed Glantz called Miramax for a comment on the upcoming ads. “The next day Variety called and said they wouldn’t run the ad,” says Glantz. “It’s so obvious--I have no doubt Miramax demanded that they pull the ads. People say that when we criticize smoking in movies that we’re interfering with free speech, but then Miramax turns around and uses its economic muscle to basically shut me up.”

Glantz says that after ABC News contacted Miramax he received a phone call from a Miramax publicity executive who told him the “In the Bedroom” ad could damage the film’s Oscar chances. According to Glantz, the publicist said, “Why don’t you pick on ‘A Beautiful Mind’? They smoke in that movie too.”

The trades have a history of running advocacy ads pertaining to specific movies. The day before New Line released “John Q,” in which a desperate dad holds an emergency room hostage when his son is denied a heart transplant, a health insurance lobbying group bought full-page ads in both trades blaming Washington for failing to address the problems of the uninsured.

Variety publisher Charles Koones says Glantz’s “In the Bedroom” ad was a different case. “The ad singled out a particular picture, which I thought was potentially libelous,” he explained. “If it gave five examples of smoking in the movies, I would’ve run it.”

Koones said he never spoke with Miramax about the ad, an account supported by the studio. “They had nothing to do with this. It was totally my call.”

After Variety rejected the ad, Glantz went to the Hollywood Reporter, which also turned it down. The Reporter’s associate publisher Lynn Segall said, “We felt the content and the tone weren’t appropriate.”

As to the ad’s attack on the film itself and the larger issue of smoking in the movie, “In the Bedroom” director Todd Field insists there is nothing gratuitous about the smoking in the film. “When people grieve, they fall back on old habits, especially in an oral way,” he says. “My dad was a terrible smoker before I convinced him to quit. But if he lost one of his kids, he’d go back in a heartbeat. There’s nothing glamorous about this behavior. It’s a 52-year-old mother, it’s not like the smoking in ‘Pulp Fiction.’ The ad makes all sorts of ludicrous accusations--it feels like cultural McCarthyism to me.”

I agree with Field. I wish Glantz had gone after “Charlie’s Angels,” a film that features smoking and appeals to kids, not adults. But the ad controversy highlights an even more troublesome issue. In an era in which tobacco use is on the decline in virtually every demographic category in the U.S., why is cigarette smoking still on the rise in Hollywood films?

Since the landmark 1964 surgeon general’s report that linked smoking to an increased likelihood of disease and early death, smoking has lost much of its allure. Advertising tobacco brands on TV has been illegal since 1970. It took Hollywood longer to stop accepting money in return for cigarette plugs in films. In the mid-1980s Sylvester Stallone was paid $500,000 to use Brown & Williamson products in five feature films, according to documents posted on the Smoke Free Movies Web site. Finally, in 1989, tobacco firms pledged to stop paying for product placement in films. Most studios won’t even take tobacco products for free today. But cigarette plugs didn’t stop, only the exchange of cash. As recently as 1991, R.J. Reynolds was paying the heavyweight Hollywood PR firm Rogers and Cowan $12,500 a month to provide free cigarettes to a slew of film productions as well as an elite list of stars and industry leaders, also according to documents on the Smoke Free Movies site. Judging from films today, the tobacco companies’ continuing efforts to promote smoking have paid off.

At a time when smoking is banned in most public places, tobacco use is everywhere in movies. You can find stars smoking in three of the five films nominated for best picture: Spacek, Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” and too many actors to count in “Gosford Park.” Gene Hackman and Gwyneth Paltrow smoke up a storm in “The Royal Tenenbaums”; ditto for Billy Bob Thornton in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Halle Berry and much of the cast of “Monster’s Ball,” Ewan McGregor and others in “Black Hawk Down,” John Travolta in “Swordfish,” Cameron Diaz in “Vanilla Sky” and nearly everyone in “Sexy Beast.”

Filmmakers say there are good reasons for characters to puff away. Crowe starts smoking in “Beautiful Mind” as a visual tip-off to his descent into schizophrenia. In Adrian Lyne’s upcoming film “Unfaithful,” Diane Lane takes up smoking after she has begun an extramarital affair.

Still, there are many examples of celluloid smoking that appear to have more to do with style than dramatic justification. One producer speculates that smoking is rampant in films because if there’s one demographic group that smokes more than Virginia tobacco growers, it’s Hollywood actors. Throughout the HBO documentary series “Project Greenlight,” two people are always seen smoking--Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. One reason Crowe didn’t show up in the press room immediately after winning his Oscar last year is because he had stepped outside the Shrine Auditorium for a cigarette.

Most studios have no formal smoking guidelines. Warners says it strongly encourages directors not to portray film heroes as smokers, but final decisions are left to the filmmakers. Universal has a “consciousness-raising discussion” with filmmakers about smoking before a film goes into production. “We don’t have any edicts but we ask our filmmakers to avoid having good or bad characters smoke in a film,” says studio Chairwoman Stacey Snider.

She admits the urgings aren’t always effective, since both Julia Roberts and Crowe, the stars of the studio’s two most prestigious recent films, “Erin Brockovich” and “A Beautiful Mind,” are both seen smoking. “I’m never going to censor [“Erin Brockovich” director] Steven Soderbergh,” says Snider. “But it’s important to at least challenge filmmakers to think about their decisions.”

Hollywood’s leading consciousness raiser has been Lindsay Doran, producer of “Sense and Sensibility” and a former United Artists production chief who has recently made anti-smoking presentations at numerous studios and major production companies. As a young production exec, she persuaded John Hughes to make his title character in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” a nonsmoker.

“If you have a PG-13 film, you know your marketing department is going to do everything it can to get teenagers to see the movie,” she says. “We know smoking is the all-time leading cause of early death. So you have to ask yourself, if you’re deciding between free speech and social consciousness, what’s more important?”

Doran has been treated with respect by industry execs; she’s one of them. Reaction to Glantz hasn’t been so warm. People in Hollywood resent pushy moral crusaders who criticize their business practices. When Glantz ran a photo of Warner Bros. chief Barry Meyer in one of his ads, citing him as a tool of Big Tobacco, a top Warners corporate publicist called the UCSF School of Medicine to question whether the publicly supported university knew its funds were being used to support Glantz’s campaign.

Glantz’s ads are often obnoxious, but they make a valid point. It’s time for a serious debate about a serious issue. Studies show that kids who see stars smoking in films are more likely to start smoking. If my young son were a teenager tomorrow, and you asked me what movie behavior I’d want him to emulate the least--cursing, experimenting with sex or smoking cigarettes--puffing on a Marlboro would win hands down. Yet profanity and sex trigger an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, but smoking doesn’t.

I’m personally against all ratings and self-censorship, but if the presence of profanity prevented kids from seeing uplifting films like “Ali” and “Billy Elliot,” then why shouldn’t cigarette smoking prompt the same ratings restrictions? If the MPAA made every movie with smoking R-rated, shrinking the studios’ access to young moviegoers, the hue and cry about free speech would disappear overnight--99% of the smoking in movies would evaporate.

Glantz has an even more modest idea worth adopting: putting anti-tobacco ads on the front of movies that feature smoking. Studies have shown that when it’s been tried it has a considerable immunizing effect on young moviegoers. The film industry has been a generous supporter of all sorts of good causes, from promoting designated-driver campaigns and education reform to fighting global warming. But tobacco use isn’t a problem on some faraway Alaskan oil field. It’s right here at home, on every studio back lot. Maybe now is the time to do something about it.


“The Big Picture” runs each Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes .com