No More Smoking in Films

April 28, 2004

Issue Essay

What kind of impact do movies have on us? Films can make us laugh, and make us cry, but do they also influence us to engage in the same kind of behavior as our onscreen heroes? We\'ve heard arguments for and against the cause-and-effect relationship of onscreen sex and violence, but what about onscreen smoking?

The first recorded opposition to cigarettes was in 1892. Cigarettes were labeled by the Senate Committee on Epidemic Diseases to be an "an evil" and a "public health hazard” and urged petitioners to “seek remedies from states".

Yet, with the US entering into World War I, commanders and generals were more concerned with “sobriety and chastity” than tobacco and actually encouraged its use. A civilian campaign called "Smokes for Soldiers" started in 1917, and distributed thousands of cigarettes during the short time the US was involved with the war. Newspapers throughout the country displayed headlines and advertisements such as "Our Army in France is Short of Tobacco," "Boys at Front Need Tobacco," and "I Need Smokes More Than Anything Else". While most of the country fully supported this cause, there were still critics. John Harvey Kellogg wrote,

"The cigarette is known to be an enemy of scholarship, of culture, of morals, of health and vigor, and yet it is tolerated, even encouraged. The millions of cigarettes now being fired at our soldiers will...hit its mark and do its mischief. More American soldiers will be damaged by the cigarette than by German bullets".

In the thirties and forties smoking was supported and promoted by celebrities such as Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, even J. Edgar Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt, all of whom smoked cigarettes quite often. It was in the thirties that the heroes were far more likely to smoke cigarettes than villains.

It was in 1961 that the major public health organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the American Public Health Association, the American Heart Association, and the National Tuberculosis Association sent a letter to President Kennedy asking him to put together a team to study the effects of smoking. Kennedy agreed and in 1962 the Surgeon General\'s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health was formed with the mission to study the effects of smoking on health. This delighted the public health organizations and other anti-tobacco activists. It consisted of 10 members. Eight of them had their MD degree (three of which also held a PhD), a PhD chemist, and a statistician. Three smoked cigarettes and two smoked cigars. No person who had taken a public stand on the issue was even considered for the board. After about a year of work, on January 11, 1964, the Advisory Board proclaimed that cigarette smoke was a major health risk and perhaps the cause of rising cancer rates. The Surgeon General at the time (Luther Terry) remembers, "The report hit the country like a bombshell". Over the next three months, the use of cigarettes dropped significantly (almost twenty percent). While it did eventually rise again to the prior consumption rate, this report left a major imprint that could not be overlooked.

This was the start of a new movement in the US. Soon after, the government issued the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965, which required cigarette manufacturers to place a warning label on cigarettes stating "Warning: The Surgeon General has found that smoking is hazardous to your health". Then in 1969, the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act had the Surgeon General\'s health warning changed to "Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health". In 1970 the tobacco industry attempted to challenge the act, but failed. Also in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to “prevent and control water and air pollution caused by unnatural forces”. For the first time (in 1973) non-smoking sections were offered to airline passengers. It wasn’t until 1990 that smoking was completely banned on all domestic flights less than six hours. In 1984, the Comprehensive Smoking Education Act was enacted, which started a rotation of four health warnings on all cigarette packages. In 1987, the United States Department of Health and Human Services began prohibiting smoking in its offices. By 1993, the American