Before You Light Up...

Comment by Mark Lacter

Despite all the prohibitions and all the studies and most important, all the deaths, it still remains cool to smoke a cigarette.

For much of that, we can thank Hollywood and the tobacco companies that have taken their own interlocking agendas glamour and profits, respectively and conveniently forgotten about the consequences. Even today, there's an obvious desire on the part of cigarette makers to put their product in the hands of the most attractive and visible people on earth show people.

A new report lays out how the tobacco companies pushed to get screen time in the '80s and early '90s and how at least one tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds, provided free cigarettes to actors in the hopes they would be puffing away on camera.

Actual product placement in the movies has been disbanded, but the report, released by an obscure British quarterly called Tobacco Control and based on formerly secret industry documents, points out that the amount of smoking on screen increased after 1990, following declines in the 1970s and 1980s.

The old maxims still apply: smokers are rugged individualists, non-smokers are schnooks. An item in Liz Smith's column last week has Miramax head Harvey Weinstein and Oscar nominee Russell Crowe puffing outside the Screen Actors Guild awards. "A cigarette break is a serious example of male bonding these days," swoons Smith. Heaven forbid she should call them on their habits.

Of course, it's not nearly as bad as it used to be say, 1953, when the old "Dragnet" radio shows were sponsored by the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes and the pitch was direct, and in retrospect, preposterous.

"The first choice of young America, according to a recent survey made in 274 colleges," begins one commercial. "A doctor has been making thorough examinations of a group of Chesterfield smokers every two months for a full year. And he reports no adverse effects to the nose, throat and sinuses. Try Chesterfield buy a carton."

Another break in the same show offers a more ludicrous pitch: "Recent chemical analyses give an index of good quality for the country's six leading cigarette brands. The index of quality table, a ratio of high sugar to low nicotine, shows Chesterfield's quality highest Don't you want to try a cigarette with a record like that?"

That was nearly 50 years ago well before the Surgeon General's warnings so it's not hard to imagine our parents and grandparents buying into this drivel. A more complete compendium to such corporate irresponsibility can be found at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, which has an exhibit that chronicles the use of smoking over the years in movies, television and radio.

Sadly, the promotion of cigarette smoking through the lips of actors has not really changed. It's just being nurtured through less overt means namely the reluctance by anyone to intervene.

Thus, you have Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, telling The New York Times that he is opposed to smoking in movies but then adding, "I am not an ideologue on this. I am also a believer in freedom. If someone wants to smoke, it's their business."

I suppose. And yet, more than 160,000 Americans die from lung cancer each year. More than 90 percent of the deaths are caused by smoking. And there are still an estimated 50 million smokers in this country.

Isn't it time to realize that even in a free marketplace, we are human beings first and marketers second?

Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.