Latest Anti-Smoking Target: Cigarettes In The Cinema

It’s hard to imagine Casablanca’s Rick Blaine without smoke swirling around his face as he grows increasingly morose. But anti-smoking activists argue that 60-plus years after that classic movie was made—long before the Surgeon General issued a warning on the dangers of tobacco—it’s time for movies to lose the smoke.

Tomorrow, the issue of whether Hollywood glamorizes smoking, and thus encourages teens to adopt the habit, will be the subject of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing called by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. “Children are being influenced by the presence of smoking in movies,” argued Ensign’s rep, Jack Finn.

Ensign is not alone in his mission. William Sorrell, incoming president of the National Association of Attorneys General, told a group of advertisers and agency reps at an April meeting in Washington that, “We are seeing an increase in tobacco product placement in movies.”

Under the terms of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with 46 states, the tobacco industry agreed to refrain from product placement in movies and TV shows. The attorneys general and the American Legacy Association, however, point to recent Dartmouth Medical School studies that found cigarette brands are making more appearances in films and that teenagers who see smoking in movies are more likely to start smoking. For example, one study noted that Marlboro cigarettes appear in such teen-appeal movies as My Best Friend’s Wedding, Men in Black and Volcano.

Officials at Philip Morris, which markets Marlboros, said the company does not pay for or condone the depiction of its cigarettes in movies. “We strongly agree that product placement in movies and television has no place in our society,” said rep Jennifer Golisch. “We deny all requests for permission to use, display or make reference to our cigarette brand names and packages in motion pictures and television shows.”

Lorillard Tobacco has a similar policy. When its Newport brand appeared in the 2002 Warner Bros. film City by the Sea, the company wrote a letter to the movie studio, asking that “further portrayals of our products do not make it into your films.”

Warner Bros. replied that “these decisions are purely creative … and are legally permissible under First Amendment … principles” but did agree to “attempt to limit or eliminate such depictions in future motion pictures.”

A group of 25 attorneys general have been pressing the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Theatre Owners and the various guilds representing directors, writers and actors to reduce the depiction of smoking in movies [Adweek, May 3].

In addition, the American Legacy Foundation, which sponsors a national anti-smoking campaign, along with the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization want Hollywood to adopt four principles: give all movies that depict smoking an “R” rating, stop identifying tobacco brands in films, run anti-smoking spots before movies that show smoking (to be sponsored by the movie distributor) and certify that producers of films that show smoking have not accepted anything of value from tobacco companies.

In a letter sent to MPAA president Jack Valenti last August, Sorrell wrote, “The motion picture industry … is uniquely situated to bring about sweeping change to prevent youth smoking.”

Legacy president and CEO Cheryl Healton said, “If you use the F word in a movie twice, the film has to be rated ‘R.’ I would argue that it is much less harmful to hear the F word twice than to see smoking glamorized.”

Vans Stevenson, svp for state legislative affairs at the MPAA, countered that depicting smoking is a matter of creative expression. “Our member companies are not in the business of advertising,” he said. “We are in the business of storytelling. Therefore, smoking is an element in the time-honored tradition of art imitating life.”