Public-health experts don't necessarily like the way Mel Gibson lights up the big screen.
At least when he uses matches. Smoking, particularly among society's most affluent, has dropped since the 1960s. But many moviemakers still long for leading characters who can inhale like Anne Bancroft in "The Graduate."
Research has found that not only smoking but even cigarette brand endorsements remain popular in films, despite the tobacco industry's self-imposed ban on paid product placement.
"Whether it's intended or not, the display of brand names in movies has marketing implications worldwide," says Dr. James Sargent of Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire.
Sargent worries that U.S. adolescents aren't the only ones getting the message that smoking is cool. American movies, whether by design or by default, could help drive global tobacco addiction.
"Films aren't just reaching an American audience," Sargent says. "These folks are heavily susceptible to messages about America."
Sargent and his colleagues recently asked two independent observers to watch all 25 top-grossing U.S. films from 1988 through 1997, noting whether tobacco appeared on screen, and whether a brand name was clearly visible.
The Dartmouth team then analyzed the results, curious to measure not only the popularity of smoking, but the effect of a 1989 moratorium on tobacco product placement.
Reporting in the journal The Lancet, Sargent said about 85 percent of the films showed tobacco use. Package labels were clearly visible in 28 percent of the films.
"By getting smoking in films, Hollywood is promoting the worldwide epidemic of tobacco use," says Dr. Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco. Clantz, who has published extensive research on tobacco use, says the popularity of brand endorsement surprised him.
In 1994, he reported in the American Journal of Public Health that smoking by certain populations in movies was far more popular than smoking among similar populations in real life.
"A kid going and watching a film is going to get a very distorted view about the prevalence of smoking," Glantz says.
But just because actors are smoking doesn't necessarily mean the movies are promoting bad habits, says Larry Deutchman of the Entertainment Industries Council. Movie studios, networks and others formed his group in 1983 to advise the entertainment industry about social issues on screen.
"One of the things that happens quite often with these types of studies is there's a tendency to do bean counting," Deutchman says. "They don't ever stop to take a look at the context of the behavior. Just because there's smoking in a particular film doesn't mean that's a bad thing."
For example, he pointed out, the Sacramento branch of the American Lung Association in California reviews the top 50 movies every year for tobacco use. Since 1991, the Lung Association has found 26 percent of those movies had messages portraying cigarette use as something undesirable or unhealthy. About 37 percent of the films portrayed smoking as positive ö connected to wealth, power, charisma or sex appeal, the Lung Association found.
Deutchman says tobacco companies are not paying for actors to flash their products, despite the Dartmouth finding. Sometimes filmmakers want to use a particular brand to say something about their characters, piggybacking on advertising images created by the tobacco industry. Or cinematographers may like the smoky curls off a cigarette.
Too many movie industry leaders, however, don't have the same philosophy, says Curtis Mekemson of the American Lung Association in Sacramento. "You can't paint the entertainment industry with one particular brush," he says.
"There's a fairly high correlation between what young people see in the movies and their decision to start smoking," Mekemson says. "What we're doing is saying: 'Be aware of it. If there are alternatives, use alternatives.' They do have a responsibility to entertain, they do have a responsibility to their art, but they also have a responsibility to the impact of their art."