Remember Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr. having a brother-and-sister chat in Home for the Holidays? Remember them swapping a cigarette back and forth, uttering cozy bon mots between drags? Do you remember a word of what they said?
Not likely. The scene in that 1995 film wasn't about dialogue. It was about cigarettes: cigs as comfort food, cigs as social lubricant, cigs as bonding. And it was surprising, that scene and many, many more in nineties movies, because only a few years earlier both Hollywood and Big Tobacco has sworn never to promote smoking on-screen again. In 1989, the tobacco industry agreed to a voluntary ban on paying to place its products in Hollywood films. But last month researchers at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire published a study in The Lancet medical journal showing that since then things are actually worse.
The most surprising outcome of the research, supported by $1.8 million from the National Cancer Institute, is not only that you still see actors smoking, but that you can see the brand they're smoking· and you see it 11 times more often than before the ban. "The actors almost have to twist their hand with the package to display it to the camera," says researcher Tod Heatherton.
Worst offenders include Julia Roberts, sitting splay-legged with her pack of Marlboros in My best Friend's Wedding; Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout punching out a kidnapper over a pack of Marlboros; Al Pacino sucking on Winstons in Sea of Love; and the endless leitmotif-like appearance of packages of Kool throughout There's Something About Mary.
Based on screenings of the 250 top-box-office films from 1988 to 1997, the study concludes:
When Hollywood spokespeople comment on the issue they usually argue that writers and actors smoke freely on-screen in the interests of realism. "Smoking has become part of the definition of edginess, and edginess is in," said Larry Deutchman of the Entertainment Industries Council, which advises Hollywood on social issues, in a 1996 television interview.
The film industry has not reacted to the Lancet study, and various U.S. studios and artists contacted for this article did not respond. Sandra Cunningham, the independent Toronto-based producer of Atom Egoyan's films, tends to believe that "smoking is just a hand prop that gives a character and instant characteristic," and she has bot heard anyone suggest that cigarette companies still have a relationship with film studios.
"But I do read film scripts where cigarette brands are talked about, which shows how successful tobacco advertising was when it was permitted. A lot of young filmmakers will think of a certain character as being a Lucky Strike or Marlboro kind of person. There's a sort of nostalgia. Those archetypes exist in film scripts today because they're left over from celebrity advertising in the past."
Bill House, head of feature-film development at Alliance Atlantis in Toronto feels that movies cling to cigarettes as a means of distinguishing themselves from television. "Cigarette smoking has largely disappeared from TV, and when you do see it, it denotes evil. It always has a point on TV. But films include cigarette smoking with all kinds of characters, because there's still a lot of smoking in the real world. Realism is more important to the movie form than it is to the melodrama contrivances of television." But those doing battle with the cigarette industry still suspect a link between Big Film and Big Tobacco. The Dartmouth researchers note "a concordance between the advertising goals of the tobacco industry and the actions of the film industry." It adds that whether the brand appearances are paid for or not, "the result is the same. U.S. cigarette companies are being marketed to global audiences through cinema."
"We don't have any evidence," says study co-author Madeline Dalton. "Somebody needs to uncover whether there are payments still going on." According to John Bahnzaf of the lobbying group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) that could only be done in court. "Theoretically, the state attorneys-general could seek contempt of court citations on the basis of the Master Settlement Agreement," says Bahnzaf, referring to the tobacco industry's 1998 agreement to pay $246 billion to U.S. state governments to offset health costs incurred by smoking. The MSA went farther than the 1989 agreement, specifying that Big Tobacco cannot so much as offer a free pack of cigarettes to a Hollywood studio. "But they the attorneys-general are already dealing with a lot of robberies and rapes that make a pack of cigarettes in a movie not look very urgent."
Critics like Bahnzaf acknowledge that there is sometimes a legitimate dramatic reason for smoking in a film. "In Chinatown, how could you not have smoking in a scene from the 1940s?" asks Bahnzaf. "Our concern isn't whether a director feels smoking is integral to the film, but rather that cigarettes so often appear in ways that are gratuitous. I'm thinking of recent films where you see doctors smoking, which makes no sense at all."
Two years ago, Bahnzaf's organization filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department that alleged that in recent films 57 percent of characters with "high socioeconomic status" smoke whereas in real like only 19 percent of such people ö doctors and lawyers, for example ö actually smoke.
The Dartmouth study said that 30 out of the 250 films surveyed showed actors endorsing cigarettes. Among the worst offenders were films such as Apollo 13, the Bridges of Madison County, First Wives Club, Get Shorty, JFK, The Last Boy Scout, Mission Impossible, My Best Friend's Wedding, Natural Born Killers, and Terminator 2.
The Writers Guild of America in Washington was asked for comment from the writers of these films. Guild spokesperson Vicky Gallion said that all had refused. Phone calls to film directors and prop masters went unanswered, and three studios (Fox, Columbia and Disney) were unhelpful.
The Dartmouth study shows that Marlboro is by far the most frequently seen logo in movies (40 percent of all brand appearances), which, says Dalton, can be correlated with studies showing it is the brand most frequently chosen by first-time smokers (54.4 percent of U.S. smokers aged 12 to 17 smoke Marlboro, says a 1999 report by the U.S. based National Household Survey on Drug Abuse). Several studies have shown that seeing a favourite film star smoking is the most effective means of persuading teenagers to take up the habit.
Before 1989, buying screen time for cigarettes had become a scandal. Philip Morris paid $350,000 to have its Lark brand featured in the James Bond flick License to Kill. Sylvester Stallone has admitted that in 1983 he agreed to smoke Brown and Williamson cigarettes in five movies in exchange for a $500,000 fee.
Since the 1989 voluntary ban, tobacco spokesmen have insisted that paid placement no longer exists and government audits of their books have turned up no evidence of such payments. "We don't provide, authorize the use of, or accept payment for any kind of tobacco product seen in movies," says Philip Morris spokesman Robert Kaplan, adding "there's not much we can do if a filmmaker uses a Philip Morris product without the company's consent."
And why is Philip Morris' Marlboro brand seen so often in movies? "Marlboro is the world's No. 1-selling consumer product," replies Kaplan, suggesting that filmmakers choose it because of its familiarity. "I know of no under-the-table programs or agencies that are doing this," says Gary Dahlquist, head of the Entertainment Resources and Marketing Association (ERMA) in Los Angeles. "If it's being done, it's being done in a stealthy manner." Dahlquist attributes the increase of on-screen cigarette branding to screenwriters' increased awareness of marketing. "To a screenwriter, the idea that you can pinpoint the customer for a consumer product sounds very high-tech. Maybe they think brands will make their characters more believable." Phil Hart of Tornonto-based MMI Product Placement Inc. adds that writers will often place cigarettes in the hands of unsavoury characters "and the tobacco companies have nothing to do with it. They avoid such product placement like the plague."
The Dartmouth study also alleges that cigarette brand names are often glimpsed in youth-market movies such as The Nutty Professor, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Men in Black. To Bahnzaf of ASH, cigarette brands in youth-market films are especially reprehensible. "When a kid watches a commercial on TV, a bit of a defense mechanism goes up. He knows somebody'' trying to sell something. But if it's a movie, and they're entranced by Superman and Lois Lane smoking a cigarette, those defense mechanisms don't go up." And the fact that tobacco logos are just glimpsed in the background of these movies doesn't persuade him that the tobacco companies are not involved. "In sports events companies will track down to the 10th of a second how often a logo in a stadium sign appears on the TV screen, and they put prices on them."