The tobacco industry spends upwards of $1 million each hour marketing their products. That’s why it seems impossible to avoid commercials, billboards, and other types of ads for cigarettes. Unfortunately, that’s not the only place this industry has continued to thrive — movies are a huge way to showcase smoking and the use of tobacco products.

While you might think that cigarette use would have gone down in films over the years, just the opposite is true. Despite there being more information and awareness than ever about the health risks surrounding smoking, movies are still glamorizing the use of cigarettes, and depictions are on the rise.

The scariest part about this is that smoking isn’t just displayed in films meant for adults. In 2016, for example, 26% of all films directed toward youths contained impressions of tobacco use. Children are impressionable, and when they see one of their favorite characters lighting up a cigarette, it can give them the idea that it’s okay for them to do the same. Because many people view smoking as a health risk, there have been pushes to give films with tobacco use an automatic R rating, but nothing has come of that yet.

When someone is shown smoking a cigarette in a movie, of course it looks appealing — they’re in professional makeup with professional lighting surrounding them. They’ve been given very specific lines to say and are supposed to act a certain way. Clint Eastwood wouldn’t be the same without a cigarette hanging from his lips in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, would he? Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t seem as glamorous in Breakfast at Tiffany’s without the traditional long cigarette pursed between her lips, right?

What movies don’t often show is how smoking can cause major health problems.

The History of Smoking in Movies

It’s not uncommon for famous Hollywood actors and film studios alike to cut deals with tobacco companies. The actor/studio would get paid a sum of money for smoking a certain brand of cigarettes in the film. 

This practice has been going on for decades. In fact, the early films of the 1920s were often promoted and advertised by tobacco companies. That trend continued all the way through the 1960s, when role models and characters kids looked up to were often given large payouts in order to smoke on camera. 

In 1971, there was a smoking ban in the U.S. that prohibited brands of cigarettes from being advertised on television and in movies. In response, the tobacco market took a different strategy — they simply wanted to make sure celebrities were still smoking on screen. The brand didn’t matter as much as the cigarettes themselves. 

Eventually, though, the industry was up to its original tricks:

  • 1978’s Grease, a film marketed to teens and young adults, showcases smoking as something the “cool kids” do. While no particular brands are named, cigarettes are prominently displayed throughout the film. 

  • In 1980’s Superman II, the Marlboro cigarette brand is mentioned 40 times. The producers of the film were paid $40,000 to make that happen. 

  • Sylvester Stallone made an arrangement with Brown & Williamson cigarettes to smoke their products in five of his films, including Rambo and Rocky IV. Stallone was paid $500,000 for the deal. 

Cigarettes are still a part of Hollywood today. While actors may not be getting big paychecks from specific companies, the tobacco industry has integrated itself into plotlines and stories featured in movies. So much so, in fact, that it can sometimes be easy to overlook or ignore a scene where someone is smoking. Unfortunately, that’s half the problem. Smoking has become normalized in film, making it harder to denormalize in the real world. 

What Are the Risks of Smoking?

For as much as Hollywood has glamorized smoking, filmmakers don’t often go over the potential health risks it can cause. Some of the most notable ones include: 

  • Heart disease

  • Stroke

  • Lung diseases

  • Cancer

  • High blood pressure

Smoking causes over 480,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. That’s more than any type of illegal drug use, car accidents, gun-related deaths, and even HIV combined. The risks haven’t lowered over the years, either. In fact, the risk of death from smoking cigarettes has increased over the last 50 years. 

Even when smoking doesn’t contribute to a life-threatening condition, it can create other health problems that can cause concern, like erectile dysfunction. Tobacco limits blood flow through the body, which can contribute to issues like this. Smoking can also worsen existing health conditions. For example, if you have GERD, smoking can make your symptoms worse. This is due to the nicotine in cigarettes, which weakens muscles that connect your esophagus and stomach. 

Thankfully, lifestyle modifications can reduce your risk of developing a health condition or making an existing one worse. When you stop smoking, you’ll start to feel better very quickly, and your risks will go down significantly. There are many ways to quit. 

While it isn’t always easy and takes a lot of dedication, don’t go from one vice to the next. Vaping has become a popular trend, especially among young people. Unfortunately, it may not be much better than smoking, with risks like an increased heart rate and chemicals that can have lasting negative effects on your body. 

Can Hollywood Harm the Tobacco Industry?

Hollywood can have a major impact on how cigarettes are viewed and how popular they are, especially with a young audience. But, with most movies showing no signs of hiding their use of tobacco products, is it a lost cause to think they could have a positive impact on reducing tobacco use? 

Not exactly. The film industry has taken some steps to make smoking seem less glamorous. The popular 2015 film Thank You for Smoking showcased the darker side of the tobacco industry and one man’s struggle to continue promoting the tobacco agenda while trying to decide how he truly feels about it and the effects it might have on his son.

Certain movie companies have also taken steps to get cigarettes out of films directed toward kids. Disney leads the way with these efforts, adopting a policy in 2016 that states none of their films directed toward children will showcase tobacco use of any kind. This includes films produced by Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel.

The film industry likely won’t stop glamorizing smoking any time soon. It might even get worse or change as vaping continues to become more popular. But we can hope companies who make films directed toward kids follow Disney’s lead to stop showing cigarettes in a positive light. If movies take that away from young audiences, it gives those kids a chance to grow up with a better understanding of how damaging smoking can really be.

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