Not long ago, I saw the romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding." It had a clever plot, witty lines and some unusual high jinks. It also featured a prop increasingly favored in Hollywood movies: the cigarette.
In the film, Julia Roberts, portraying a beautiful and successful career woman, smokes when she's upset. She smokes when she's tired. She smokes when she's happy. In fact, she seems to smoke throughout the movie.
This portrayal of a modern woman so reliant on cigarettes is particularly troubling given that more young women are taking up the deadly habit. The movie only adds to smoking's allure.
Whether blatant or subtle, smoking in movies is on the rise, sending a confusing message to young people about the use of tobacco products. Last year, 77 percent of all major motion pictures portrayed the use of tobacco. And in most of those movies, it was the lead actors and actresses who smoked. Every single movie nominated for a 1996 Academy Award in the categories of best picture, best actor and best actress featured tobacco use by a leading character.
These are the findings of Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, a project sponsored by the American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, in which more than 100 teenagers spent a year reviewing current movies to gauge the prevalence of tobacco use.
These findings are bad news for our nation's children, and they should send a wake-up call to Hollywood studios to acknowledge the influence they wield in our children's lives. Just when the tobacco industry is being held accountable for advertising targeted at young people, movies are stepping in as a powerful vehicle promoting tobacco interests.
As any parent knows, children are often swayed by popular culture. During adolescence, when they are struggling to define who they are and what they want to be, they are bombarded with messages about everything from what they should wear, to how they should look, to ways they should act.
Movie stars who puff away on the screen equate smoking with status, power, confidence and glamour. That's why a dynamic woman smoking throughout "My Best Friend's Wedding," an intelligent scientist lighting up in "Contact" and Leonardo DiCaprio playing a chain-smoking Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" send children the wrong message.
Perhaps not surprisingly, cigarette smoking is increasing among American teens, despite the best efforts of parents and teachers to educate children about the dangerous effects of tobacco. Between 1991 and 1995, the percentage of eighth- and tenth-graders who smoked jumped by more than one-third.
And it's not just cigarettes that are attracting children these days. Cigar use is growing among adults — and kids, too — thanks in part to marketing strategies that have given the cigar new cachet as an emblem of wealth and sophistication. More than one in four children between the ages of 14 and 19 have smoked a cigar in the last year, according to a study released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation earlier this year.
Sadly, there seems to be a perception that cigars are not as dangerous as cigarettes. In fact, research has shown that cigar smokers are at a greater risk than non-smokers of contracting tongue, throat and lung cancer and suffering from strokes and heart attacks. Also worrisome are the health effects on those exposed to secondhand cigar smoke.
The statistics are troubling because nine out of 10 adult smokers begin before they are 18. Once they take up the habit, they're often hooked for life.
That's why reducing smoking among young people must remain a national priority. For the past four years, the President and his Administration have pushed for tougher restrictions on tobacco sales to and advertising aimed at children.
Now, leaders of the motion-picture industry need to join the campaign. Instead of hiding behind the excuse of artistic license, they should admit that most film scenes depicting smoking are gratuitous — whether it's Will Smith celebrating every triumph by lighting a cigar in "Independence Day" or Kurt Russell unveiling a pack of red, white and blue cigarillos with the brand name "Freedom" in "Escape from L.A."
Rather than allow themselves to be tools of the tobacco industry, they should follow the example of the nurse Hana in "The English Patient."
"Can you get me a cigarette?" the patient asks Hana after his plane has been shot down in World War II.
"Are you crazy?" she replies.
That should be everyone's response to smoking — including those who make and star in Hollywood movies.
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