Bad Habits

Smoking on Film

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

It's sometimes hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys in movies today. New research in the journal Chest suggests that viewers look for another sign of bad intentions besides wearing black: a cigarette. Researchers analyzed 447 popular movies from the 1990s and found 35 percent of movie antagonists lit up, compared to 20 percent of protagonists, a gap that was even wider in PG-rated movies. Remember Al Pacino's turn as Satan in "The Devil's Advocate"? Smoker. Jon Voight's double-crossing secret agent in "Mission Impossible"? Also a smoker. Arch-villain Darren Frost from the vampire flick "Blade?" Of course.

Art Imitates Life The popularity of smoking in movies appears to mirror real-life habits. Looking at the top five characters in each of the movies in the study, the research team found prevalence rates that were similar to the population as a whole: 23.3 percent of the characters smoked, compared with 24.8 percent of Americans. As in real life, men on screen puffed more than women: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women smoke. On screen and off, whites smoked more than nonwhites.

Not So Cool But lead author Karan Omidvari, a physician at St. Michaels Medical Center in Newark, N.J., said that R-rated movies -- the kind often aimed at a hip teenage audience -- were unabashedly smoke-filled. More than 30 percent of the characters in R-rated movies from the major studios smoked, found the study; the figure topped 50 percent for independent films. And even when the bad guys are smoking, it isn't always with the aim of making the habit look evil. Omidvari cites "Payback," starring Mel Gibson as a wisecracking, chain-smoking hitman: "There is no question about what they wanted to say: He is very, very cool." Cassandra Welch, director of national advocacy for the American Lung Association, worries about that dramatic effect. "Whether a Hollywood exec is purposely putting smoking in their movies or just adding it because they can't think of a more creative way to express angst, we still have too much smoking."

--Brian Reid


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