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On-Screen Tobacco

Onscreen Depictions of Smoking

A subtle influence

Tobacco advertising is banned in Canada. Yet, tobacco products are still quite pervasive on screen! Indeed, smoking is four times more prevalent onscreen than it is in real life, according to various studies. In the movies and on television, smoking is often given a leading role in that it is cast as a completely normal form of consumption. The result is that repeated exposure to onscreen smoking exerts an influence on viewers, serving to drive up the incidence of smoking.

The dark side of the industry

Depictions of smokers in films, television series and video-clips perpetuate the notion that smoking is banal and commonplace.

Onscreen smokers are often depicted as rich, powerful, seductive or rebellious, and more often than not, they’re film stars! Unconsciously, viewers associate the act of smoking with being cool or glamorous.

The incidence of smoking among onscreen protagonists is three times higher than it is in the normal population.

Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, whose film credits include Basic Instinct, American Rhapsody and Heart of Fire, has had many of his characters smoke on screen. Acknowledging the impact of onscreen smoking, he now says that, “A cigarette in the hands of a movie star is like a gun to the head of a teenager aged 12 to 14.”

Until the 1990s, the tobacco industry openly paid actors, screenwriters and producers to promote their products in films. While this practice no longer exists, tobacco products are still ubiquitous on screen.

Tobacco in the spotlight

Between 2002 and 2013, the proportion of films featuring scenes of smoking decreased by half. Nevertheless, close to 40% of films geared to teens still have scenes featuring smoking. Even more troubling, the number of scenes featuring smoking in American films for teens doubled between 2010 and 2012!

Smokers account for 22% of the population of Québec. Yet, 75% of the 12 most popular Québec films in 2010 depicted scenes of smoking. There’s something wrong with this picture!

Moreover, some 35% of television shows depict scenes of smoking.

Smoking is also featured in one of every four video-clips.

Over the years, a reduction in the number of scenes featuring a lone smoker has also been observed, replaced by scenes featuring group smoking. Smoking thus becomes the rule and not the exception. To compound matters, this raises another smoking-related issue: second-hand smoke.

When fiction influences reality

Teens that are regularly exposed to scenes of smoking are unknowingly influenced by them. Under these circumstances, in fact, the risk of initiating smoking increases three-fold, and the teens also tend to overestimate the percentage of smokers in real life. What’s more, if their favourite actors often smoke on screen, teens are 16 times more likely to adopt a positive attitude toward smoking.

An estimated 44% of teen smokers initiated smoking following frequent exposure to the use of tobacco products in films.

In the United States alone, scenes of smoking account for up to $4.1 billion in profits every year for tobacco manufacturers. Repeated depictions of smoking in films may not boost ticket sales, but they clearly conspire to increase cigarette sales!

Why depict smoking as attractive when we know it causes premature aging of the skin to go along with serious diseases? Why associate smoking with rebelliousness when in fact it fosters dependency? Why perpetuate the belief that “everyone smokes” when four of five people in Québec are non-smokers? Tobacco companies profit enormously from scenes of smoking, but those scenes do nothing but harm to the public. Enough with “filtered” reality!

Smoking may have a role to play in the movies. But movies are mere fiction.

In reality, tobacco is habit-forming and it causes the premature death of one in two smokers.

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