Sunday, June 21, 2015

Smoking and movies

Woody Allen, not too long ago decided not to release any of his films in India because of their harsh treatment of smoking in movies.  I have come to admire Woody, and sympathize with his desire to create a positive atmosphere when his movies are screened.  Being a life long non smoker I am not quite as self righteous as converted non smokers, but I think something has to be done and perhaps the Indian film authorities have made a good move.

Clark Gable took off his shirt in 1934 as studio people wanted to project a masculine quality.  Supposedly it was a key factor in decline of undershirt sales.  Marlon Brando wore a T shirt in "A Streetcar named Desire" and started a new fashion.  This demonstrates commercial interests do have an impact.  The term "product placement"  has become familiar to all of us.

Prominent actors were paid to endorse smoking.  John Wayne, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey, emphasized masculinity.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were also paid to give a sophisticated image.  From the 1920's to 1950's tobacco companies provided most of the advertising revenue for Hollywood movies.  Starting with the 50's there was a noticeable shift to television and tobacco companies often sponsored tv shows.  After 1970 when tobacco advertising was banned, placement strategy became more important.  In 1998 an agreement was made that prohibited tobacco product placement in entertainment accessible to children, but nonetheless tobacco placement increased until 2005.  It is still prominent in many features.

Smoking is a problem, especially with youngsters.  In my whole life I only know one person who started smoking as an adult and she was under a lot of stress.  We all know that smoking is harmful, but preaching about it doesn't work, in fact it often just provides an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and (false) sophistication.  Probably more effective are role models, i.e. non smoking heroes, even celebrities.

A friend from high school had quit smoking, but in our small town (Haliburton) found the local pool hall as "something" to do and was frustrated that he didn't perform slickly and re-started smoking so he wouldn't feel so foolish.  I remember some other friends who started smoking at dances when they were trying to develop a relationship and were offered cigarettes by their female prospects.  They couldn't say no.  I don't understand how I avoided it, but it just didn't make sense to me.  All this time movies which were a big part of my life and my peers were presenting smoking as masculine, sophisticated and also a stress reliever.

I know smoking has a long history and it wouldn't  be realistic for example to portray World War II soldiers without most of them smoking.  But when movies glamourize smoking they are sending a message that many youngsters like to emulate.  Smoking has been used to project masculinity.  It often has been an ice breaker.  Movies try to reflect the times, but also set standards.  Time to find other models

My father in law died of complications from lung cancer and my mother, a non smoker died of emphysema (possibly second hand smoke did her in).  I used to wear contact lens and found smoke stung my eyes.  Once you get through the teen years in modern times we are increasingly aware of the many harms of smoking and can resist the temptation.

Remedies include anti-tobacco ads before the feature plus reminders of smoking harmful effects when smoking is being shown.  Another idea is to add tobacco to the activities that restrict a film.  For producers wanting wide distribution this could diminish exposure to smoking amongst youngsters.  IMDB posts smoking information on many of their reviews as they recognize many viewers, especially parents are interested.

Larry Hagman, most famous for the bad guy on "Dallas" was an adamant non smoker chairing non smoking campaigns. A different kind of role model.

A touchy issue is forcing actors to smoke (this actually helped ruin one relationship for me).  Before an audition it is usually posted if a role requires smoking and that filters out some non-smoking actors. Vince Vaughan started smoking at age 24 because he wanted to look real and has since quit.   Others are able to fake smoking.  Fake smoking-- is used by non smoking actors+sometimes illegal inside buildings such as in California--although may be required for historical reasons, it should be very limited for any other reason.  Viewers may not realize the actor is not really smoking, but they see that smoking is considered important for image.  It is the image that is the real problem.

In India there are a lot of movies that along with the preview trailers show a short clip on the health hazards of smoking some including very graphic sections of very ill people.  I can see why Woody Allen would think these clips can turn people off.  During a movie with smoking a little warning comes on with "smoking is injurious to your health." which serves as a reminder while also being realistic in historical sense.

Until the 1990's smoking in Bollywood was mostly done by the bad guys, but subsequently copying more Western movies Indian actors smoked to demonstrate sophistication.  A law was passed in 2005 to ban smoking, but proved to be unenforceable.  Movie people complained about restrictions being like censorship.

Censorship is a delicate issue and I agree reality should be portrayed.  However youngsters are the most vulnerable and efforts to prevent their initiation are critical to future health of the nation.  Shah Rukh Khan is a chain smoker, often playing smoking roles sets a bad example.  He is one of my favourites, but I cringe to see him smoke.  Non smokers who set a better example include Abhishek Bachchan, Vivel Oberoi (not allow smoking on set), Paresh Rawal. Hrithrik Roshan and Askshay Kumar.  Saif ali Khan is a converted non smoker who has become an anti smoking crusader.  Bipasha Basu has refused to even hold a cigarette.

In Canada I recall a few non smoking commercials during the previews.  They attempt to de glamourize the image smokers see elsewhere.  The fellow singing through his windpipe makes a strong statement.

Youngsters, especially teenagers resent parents telling them what to do, but seem oblivious how other commercial interests manipulate them for their own greedy ends.  That is a delicate message to convey, but I would like to see more efforts along that line.

Again I sympathize with Woody Allen who basically wants his movies to be seen in an ideal setting.  Tobacco manufacturers have pulled the strings for many decades with movies and very carefully do what they can to undermine health programs.  When smoking is less of a health threat it will not be used to project masculinity and sophistication, but just as an historical aberration.

To get more details and updates go to:  http://smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu

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