Disney is the latest to say smoking, cinema don’t mix

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Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney Co. is trying to kick the cinematic smoking habit.

In the most explicit announcement by a Hollywood studio, Chief Executive Robert A. Iger said Wednesday that the studio would snuff out depictions of smoking in Disney-label films.

It also would discourage lighting up in the more adult fare released by its Touchstone Pictures and its specialty label, Miramax.

“A villain can be bad without smoking,” Iger said. “Heroes can be cool without smoking.”

Other studios have been quietly wrestling with the same issue of how to deal with a serious health concern while giving directors creative freedom. Universal Pictures has had a policy in place since April aimed at reducing or altogether eliminating smoking depictions in films rated for youths.


Disney’s announcement won praise from Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and from advocacy groups, such as the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Hollywood Unfiltered campaign, which has been encouraging writers and directors to consider the effect on-screen smoking has on young people and urging them not to glamorize it.

“It’s an historic breakthrough,” said Markey, chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, who recently held hearings on how cinematic images of smoking can affect young children.

For Disney and Iger, the decision is virtually no-lose. By making a major public announcement, Disney moves in front of the issue and further burnishes its family-friendly image. What’s more, the ban extends to Disney’s family films, which rarely feature smoking anyway.

Disney archivist Dave Smith recalls only a handful of such depictions, including “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella De Vil and her trademark cigarette holder or the hookah-toking caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland.”

“With smoking, you’re thinking adult-themed movies,” said Smith. “Most of our films were not adult-themed movies.”

Discouraging smoking scenes from Miramax’s independent films might not be so easy since it values giving filmmakers wide-ranging freedom.


“We haven’t exerted any control over what they make,” Iger said. “There’s going to be a serious attempt here to eliminate it, but we know it’s harder to achieve.”

A spokesman for the Directors Guild of America said that although the group discourages gratuitous depictions of smoking, the decision should be up to the filmmaker.

“We first and foremost want to protect the creative rights of our members in what they depict on screen,” Morgan Rumpf said.

Cigarette smoking -- glamorized by such Hollywood film icons as Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch” and stars Lauren Bacall and Bette Davis -- has made a recent comeback in Hollywood, approaching rates of depiction last seen in the 1950s.

Research by the Dartmouth Medical School found that 74% of the 534 recent box-office hits, many of them rated PG-13, contained smoking. The study also found that German teenagers who had seen the most smoking in movies -- usually in Hollywood productions -- were nearly twice as likely to have tried cigarettes as those who saw the least amount of on-screen smoking.

Pressure has been building on Hollywood to do something about characters who light up. This spring, 32 state attorneys general called for the Motion Picture Assn. of America to give films that contain smoking an R rating, unless they reflect the consequences of smoking or depict it for historical accuracy.


The MPAA in May said its rating board would consider smoking as a major factor in film ratings -- alongside violence, profanity, nudity and drug use.

A father of four, including two young children, Disney’s Iger said he recognized that kids could be influenced by the images they see on the screen.

“While we don’t believe that people necessarily copy everything they see in movies, we also know that people who appear in these films and TV shows can become role models and kids can at times try to copy the behavior of role models,” Iger said.

Iger wrote a letter to Rep. Markey on Wednesday, pledging the studio would “discourage” smoking depictions in its films.

He also promised to place anti-smoking public service announcements on DVDs of any future film, including from Touchstone and Miramax, that depicts smoking and that Disney would encourage theater owners to do the same.

The company’s namesake, Walt Disney, was himself a chain-smoker who died of lung cancer in 1966.


Iger said Disney would “essentially eliminate” smoking in Disney-branded family fare, which already adheres to certain standards when it comes to violence or sexuality.

Jay A. Winsten, associate dean at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that although a smoking ban on Disney films “does not involve heavy lifting,” the public service announcements are “a genuinely beneficial step that will make a real difference -- especially if other studios follow suit.”