The price of liberty

'All we're asking for is that Hollywood treat smoking in the movies as strongly as using (the f-word).' Nothing puts you off balance like a moralist with a potty mouth.

cigarette machine 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
cigarette machine 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
People look cool when they smoke. That long, confident pause on the inhale. The ability to make smoke billow forth from inside their bodies. Who's going to argue with someone gesturing with a laser pointer that's on fire? The only thing that could make smoking look cooler is if they made cigarettes that smoke tiny cigarettes. That's why movies show people smoking and doing other cool things like killing people and sleeping around, and not guys typing their newspaper columns. Especially if they move their lips while typing. And don't wear pants. But a group of decidedly uncool people - people at Harvard - want to get rid of smoking in movies. A report delivered to the Motion Picture Association of America by the Harvard School of Public Health advised that studios "eliminate the depiction of tobacco smoking from films accessible to children and youths." I like that Harvard still uses phrases like "accessible to youths." Harvard is going to have to revamp a lot of its research procedures when it hears about the Internet. The study was run by Associate Dean Jay Winsten, the guy who helped bring us the designated driver program in the late 1980s. That was a huge success because it lent moral authority to my decision to stop drinking Milwaukee's Best in high school. Also, he claims it has saved lives. All I know is that Jessica Pagasch got in my car once. When I asked Winsten if directors should only make movies in which people eat vegetables and lean protein and work out all the time, he said that wasn't what he was after. Which was disappointing, because a world in which every movie contains a "Rocky" training sequence seems pretty awesome. "I'm not sure where you draw the line, but I'm pretty sure that tobacco smoking is on one side of it," he said. "Because it's the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. And we're talking about protecting kids." WINSTEN SAID studies have shown that kids who see lots of movies with smoking in them are 2.7 times more likely to try a cigarette. That's a higher correlation than in studies about violence or sex in movies. Which I know is true because I watched Porky's about 200 times in junior high and I still wasn't getting any. In fact, according to an ad taken out in Variety by Smoke Free Movies, films are responsible for 5,000 smoking-related US deaths a month that might have been prevented by an R rating. Time Warner alone, the ad says, is responsible for 35,000 such preventable deaths in the past 2 1/2 years. It also might have killed the souls of whoever had to count those smoking scenes. Stanton Glantz, the University of California, San Francisco professor who runs Smoke Free Movies, says movies are responsible for causing half of the 800,000 kids a year who start smoking to pick up the habit. He thinks the Harvard study is going to force MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman to put an R rating on any film that shows a lighted cigarette. "All we're asking for is that Hollywood treats smoking in the movies as strongly as using (the f-word)." Nothing puts you off balance like a moralist with a potty mouth. I have trouble believing that the media are as powerful as Winsten and Glantz claim, possibly because my columns have never had any effect on anything. I also don't believe that showing implies approval. Not everything a character does is meant to be positive or desirable. Even if smoking looks cool, it doesn't necessarily make you want to do it. Getting a machine gun for a prosthetic leg looks pretty cool too, but three weeks after Grindhouse opened, most people are sticking with their legs. IT'S CLEAR that Glantz and Winsten mean well. Even amid the teenage consumption of coverage of Paris and Lindsay and Britney's partying, getting rid of smoking in movies might have some effect in signaling that smoking is socially unacceptable. But even if Leonardo DiCaprio's chain smoking in Blood Diamond causes kids to try cigarettes, that's the price of liberty. Art is empty propaganda if it just shows the world as we want it to be. The Harvard report states that "most smoking in movies is both unnecessary and cliched." But most everything in movies is unnecessary and cliched. When smoking becomes as shocking and publicly unacceptable as nudity, gore and cursing, you can reflect that by putting an R on those movies. But by that time, it won't be in movies any more than men wearing hats. Which, by the way, also looks cool. The writer is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.