Health and Hollywood: The Shift in Onscreen Smoking

  • Paul 
Health and Smoking

Film is a visual medium; for better or worse, what viewers see onscreen can often impact real life more than you think. In a previous post on diversity in the film industry, we highlighted the importance of on-screen representation for minority groups. When minority groups can see more of themselves represented on screen, we help normalize their presence throughout society.

On the flip side, however, the same may be true for negative on-screen representations. One of the most prominent bad habits we see on the screen today is cigarette smoking. Many studies have previously established the link between the tobacco and film industries as early as the days of black-and-white movies. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at on-screen smoking and how it has transformed over the years:

Smoking in film

One of the earliest documented examples of cigarette smoking in film dates as early as the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, in which a monkey is shown cigarette smoking. Since then, cigarettes and tobacco have become a common movie prop — at first, to make actors look more glamorous. Tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, and pipes often highlight macho and traditionally male characteristics, whereas women on-screen smoke to emphasize their characters as femme fatales or tough women.

Today, smoking is not perceived with as much glamor and is considered unhealthy and unappealing. However, the numbers say otherwise. Between 2002 and 2019, six of every ten PG-13 movies (56%) showed smoking or other tobacco use. R-rated movies saw 63% more tobacco use on-screen in 2019 than in 2018 — a historical high.

E-cigarettes and vapes

Of course, as much as movies and the film industry have evolved over the past decades, so too has smoking. Today, the general public is exposed to e-cigarettes — or vapes — and it didn’t take long before movie characters picked up the habit.

A study on e-cigarette impressions onscreen looked at 125 of the most popular Netflix original films and television shows between 2020 and 2021. 13% had e-cigarette-related content, and 10% showed at least one character holding an e-cigarette. Three titles mentioned vaping but did not show e-cigarettes. In 99% of the on-screen e-cigarette appearances, a character had one of these devices.

How about smoking cessation products?

Finally, it can be interesting to speculate on the future of tobacco depictions in film. As explained in our introduction, on-screen depictions of smoking can harm the general public, as they can influence real-life habits. This is especially true for current smokers trying to quit the habit, as seeing on-screen smoking may trigger withdrawal symptoms such as cravings.

As such, perhaps onscreen depictions of smoking cessation can help promote smoking cessation. Nowadays, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies have gradually shifted towards smoking cessation products that provide microdoses of nicotine to help relieve withdrawal symptoms. But how does this translate on-screen?

The 2006 film Thank You For Smoking featured a character with a smoking habit getting kidnapped and covered with dozens of nicotine patches. Chandler Bing struggled against his smoking habit in several episodes throughout the hit television show Friends, resorting to nicotine patches and even hypnotherapy in an attempt to quit.

In recent years, companies have released newer oral nicotine products such as nicotine pouches, which have become alternatives to the older nicotine gums and lozenges. These smoke-free alternatives to tobacco products have been used to help smokers quit.

Similarly, other innovative smoking cessation products include smokeless nicotine inhalers — an alternative to cigarettes and vapes that provides a nicotine experience without the harmful effects of traditional smoking.

While these products aren’t as famous on-screen as e-cigarettes and vapes yet, it’s interesting to consider how films in the future can tackle smoking cessation and depict them on the screen. Worst case scenario, they become odd film props that viewers must get used to. At best, however, they may help promote better public health for moviegoers and film lovers.

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