Are You Dying to Smoke?

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Does life imitate movies or do movies imitate life? Who cares? What impact could the answer to that question possibly have on you and your life? Actually this question has been the source of much discussion in recent years. You may be surprised to find that you are influenced more than you think.

Behind the smoke screen

More than 40 years ago, on Jan. 11, 1964, the surgeon general of the United States first released a report recognizing that smoking was a cause of cancer and other serious diseases.

The report stated that smoking was a health hazard serious enough to warrant efforts to get people to stop.

Some progress was made, but the percentages of people smoking began to rise again in the 1990s, particularly among certain ethnic groups. Lawsuits were brought against the tobacco industry by many state governments who claimed, among other things, that tobacco advertising was often misleading.

In November 1998 the tobacco industry settled the lawsuit. The total payout of the settlement by the tobacco industry is expected to total $246 billion (U.S.) over 25 years—and the states promised to use a significant portion of that money to combat the enormous health problems associated with tobacco use.

What does all this have to do with movies? Recent studies have shown a link between movies depicting smoking as a positive, normal and widespread behavior in society and the number of young people who begin smoking. In the last four or five years researchers at Dartmouth Medical School (Hanover, New Hampshire) have done numerous studies on smoking among American young people and movies. Among other facts, their studies have found:

• Among teens who had never smoked, those whose favorite stars smoked in three or more films were

16 times more likely to express positive opinions about smoking than those who chose nonsmoking characters.

• 31 percent of teens who saw more than 150 occurrences of smoking in movies had tried smoking compared to only 4 percent among teens who had seen less than 50 occurrences.

Scene Smoking

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) offers an hour-long video titled Scene Smoking: Cigarettes, Cinema and the Myth of Cool in which professionals from the entertainment and health fields discuss how smoking is depicted on-screen.

One of two people especially noted for their contributions is Jack Klugman, movie and television actor who depicted a medical examiner in the 1976 to 1983 TV drama series Quincy, M.E. He now has difficulty speaking because part of his larynx and one vocal cord has been removed due to throat cancer brought on by years of smoking.

The American Lung Association of Sacramento–Emigrant Trails hosts a Web site ( that focuses on the impact of smoking in movies and offers reviews of recent movies in light of their treatment of tobacco. In January 2006 they ran an article about a study done at the University of California–San Francisco that found:

• Nearly four out of five recent PG-13 movies show someone—usually a major character—smoking cigarettes or cigars or chewing tobacco.

• Only half as many people in the United States smoke today as did in 1950—but that's not true on the silver screen, as incidents of smoking on-screen rose dramatically in the past decade. To counteract some of these false messages given in movies, Scene Smoking offers the following points:

• In the real world, smokers tend to be poor and less educated. In the movies, the powerful and successful are the ones who smoke the most.

• In the real world, smoking kills smokers. More than 440,000 deaths in the United States each year are attributed to tobacco use.

• In the real world, secondhand smoke kills nonsmokers.

• In the real world, tobacco accounts for more suffering and death than homicide, suicide, illegal drugs and AIDS combined.

• In the real world, every day about 2,050 adolescents will start smoking in the United States—more than half of them because of exposure to smoking in movies.

These facts point out that Hollywood 's depiction of smoking is not a factual reflection of true life. In other words, it's a lie. Those who smoke on screen are most often depicted as "cool" or heroes, in essence urging the viewer to identify with and want to emulate the smoker. Rarely are any of the negatives and dangers of smoking depicted on-screen. This unbalanced and false representation of smoking has been shown to actually increase the amount of smoking among young people, many of whom later want to stop but are unable to because of addiction to nicotine.

Tapping the senses and emotions

How can movies have such a powerful effect on human behavior? Part of the reason is that this form of media involves not just one, but two of the senses—sight as well as hearing. In addition, it includes the emotional impact of the background music, which is very carefully selected or created.

All these factors help "set the mood" to convey whatever message the writer and director want to portray. Decieving, causing others to believe something to be true when it is actually false, becomes much easier when a form of media can tap into both the senses and emotions.

Some movie directors may argue that they're only using "artistic expression" by using cigarette smoking to depict nervousness, anxiety, celebration, rebellion or some other characteristic, and they say they have a right to free speech. However, the same characteristics can be depicted in other ways, without injecting a subtle lie into the minds of viewers.

Truth and honesty have always been described as important to God. In Isaiah 5:18 God inspired the prophet to describe the nation as dragging a huge wagonload of sin, pulled along by cords of deceit. The picture is that deceit is a great enabler of sin.

Two verses later he says, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness." The verse between these two presents people skeptically taunting God to show Himself. It is an easy step from skepticism about God to abandoning values, since God is the source of all true values.

It is also a sad fact that human beings are encouraged to do evil when they feel others are also doing it. In other words, bad habits rub off on us. The apostle Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals' " (Revised Standard Version).

There is some evidence that this was quoted from current Greek literature of the first century, but its roots go back hundreds of years earlier to Proverbs 13:20, which says, "Be with wise men and become wise. Be with evil men and become evil" (Living Bible).

Many have written about Hollywood having an agenda in trying to shape culture. Is it a coincidence that the movie receiving the most nominations for Academy Awards this year is about homosexuality? The Associated Press quoted Heath Ledger, best actor nominee in the gay romance Brokeback Mountain as saying, "But if it does alter people's hearts, if perceptions can be altered, that's a good thing."

Not all films try to change your view of reality. But the research by Dartmouth University in the last few years about the false portrayal of smoking in a large number of movies may well be the "smoking gun" evidence that Hollywood often does attempt to change its viewers' ideas and even moral perceptions.

Look through the smokescreen of emotion, glamour and hype to be on guard against any attempts to sway you from your vertical connection to God and right values. VT