Cinema Smoke Screen

09/02/2010 12:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Through most of the 20th Century, movies with characters puffing away on cigarettes helped make smoking a popular, and in some circles, necessary status symbol. In the 1940s' and 1950s', Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and scores of other established Hollywood stars always had a smoke in hand at some point in their films. Decades later, James Bond and Superman's girl friend, Lois Lane, puffed away in front of audiences filled with many an impressionable teenager.

Not surprisingly, moviegoers of all ages tended to associate cigarette smoking with glamour, vigorous youth, sexiness, wealth, and occasionally rebelliousness. I remember that my mom did not care all that much for cigarettes, but briefly took up its use in response to peer pressure.

As the major adverse health effects of tobacco have become widely publicized over the past 30 years, smoking has declined both on and off the screen in the United States. Nevertheless, 43 million Americans (many of them youngsters) remain addicted to the evil weed and 450,000 a year die prematurely from it. Despite efforts to diminish the presence and discredit the allure of smoking in films, 54 percent of movies with parental guidance ratings still have smoking in their narratives.

As long as smoking is legal, it is unconstitutional to ban the practice from appearing on the silver screen. Nonetheless, films containing smoking can still be rated "R", be preceded by anti-smoking messages, and be prohibited from displaying actual brands and receiving compensation for such actions. Many jurisdictions have adopted these measures, again with middling results in regard to discouraging smoking.

It is thus important to reduce cinematic smoking scenes even further. The Center for Disease Control has conducted studies that show youngsters who are exposed to cigarette use on film continue to be much more likely to take up smoking and set the stage for health problems later in life.

Yet James Cameron, director of the box office smash hit Avatar, fiercely defends the cigarette smoking portrayed by Sigourney Weaver's character in the film.

"Yes, smoking is a filthy habit," Cameron says, "but movies should reflect reality. Some people smoke." There are some cinematic situations where smoking is not glamorized but instead represents a character's release from anxiety, a brief respite from desperation. Military combat scenes come to mind and are unlikely to produce many new customers for the tobacco companies.

But there is another reality. Smokers are abandoning the habit in droves, and cigarette use is increasingly viewed as a societal stigma. Why not work into movie scripts the rejection of cigarettes for health reasons and the depiction of the lethal medical consequences when rejection is ignored?