By Doug Brunell | February 3, 2005

The e-mail sent to Film Threat Headquarters seemed innocent enough at first read. It came from the American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails and included a rather startling sentence: “Studies have proven that youths are influenced to begin smoking by seeing their favorite movie stars lighting up on the big screen.” The American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails decided that little problem needed to be stopped and launched a website (www.scenesmoking.org) to combat the evils of on-screen smoking. It contains “real-time reviews of movies for their tobacco content” and also has a counter that “details the number of teens who have taken up smoking because of what they saw in movies.” The site also utilizes the skills of teen volunteers to assist in its mission. A good idea? Maybe.

According to the alarmist letter, the site is a “lobbying effort to reverse Hollywood’s reliance on tobacco as props” and “includes Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, which has mobilized youth volunteers to review movies for their tobacco content.” One wonders if Roger Ebert is aware of this, and whether or not he cares. I cared, however, and decided to check out the site to see if my slowly growing fears — the same ones that accompany most anti-smoking efforts — were warranted.

In an effort to give full disclosure, I want to mention that I don’t smoke anything. Never have. My father smokes, and I have plenty of friends who smoke, but I’ve never engaged in the act. I think it’s a filthy habit, and I feel little compassion for people who smoke and then whine about getting lung cancer. That said, I don’t mind when characters on the screen smoke, and I’ve never felt the urge to light up because of “Pulp Fiction” or any other film. I should also mention that I think many non-smoking advocates are a bit over zealous in their attempts to get the world to be smoke-free. This site, as I soon learned, was no different.

Scenesmoking.org is … interesting. Its counter, which is supposedly “based on multiple studies, among them a Dartmouth College study proving that tobacco use in movies triples the odds that young audience members will try smoking,” registered 10 new addicts within about the same number of minutes. How any study can accurately measure this is beyond me, but as I watched the numbers rise, I imagined I was supposed to feel shocked and disgusted. That really didn’t happen until I started reading the movie reviews.

The film reviews use lung colors (pink, black, gray and so on) to rate movies for tobacco use. This is a nice little gimmick, though it has nothing really to do with the “Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!” moniker. I imagine a “Clear Lungs/Cancer-Riddled Lungs” would have been more in theme with everything, but who am I to judge? If it were up to me, I would’ve cleaned up the reviews a bit, too.

The “youths” that review these movies obviously aren’t professionals. I understand that. However, I can’t for the life of me understand why this site would run reviews with misspellings (one reviewer called “Spanglish” another “histerical (sic) Adam Sandler classic”), which makes these volunteers come across as idiots. I also can’t understand why this site runs reviews for “Closer” (“The actors were misguided in both love and in their excessive use of cigarettes.”) and “Blade: Trinity” (“Wow! I thought the swearing was bad but the tobacco use was more disgusting.”). Both of these films are rated R and not meant for children. Granted, some children may see these movies, but they aren’t the intended audience. (In the site’s defense, I didn’t see any reviews for porno films, which have also included some smoking, and when I finally read the site’s mission statement, I understood why those two films were chosen. More on that later.)

In addition to coming across as kids who can’t spell and who sneak into movies they aren’t supposed to see, they also come across as a bit “histerical” — going so far as to criticize a movie for having an extra who is seen smoking in the background of a scene. Apparently nobody taught them that zero tolerance equals zero intelligence.

After examining the site, reading its reviews, and pondering its mission statement, I came to a conclusion: The kids who write for the site seem like idiots because they are idiots, and the site is for their intellectual peers of all ages.

Look, if kids are dumb enough to smoke because a character on screen does it — good. This overpopulated world needs less sheep. (I’d also recommend that these same kids — the ones who grab a Marlboro because someone in a vampire movie looks cool doing it — join the military as soon as they are of age. Believe the hype! Halliburton needs you!) People who just do things without thinking don’t need to be saved. They need to suffer the consequences of their actions. I know they are kids, but there isn’t a kid in America who hasn’t been made aware about the hazards of smoking. Growing up, I didn’t even need to hear the Surgeon General’s warnings or sit through the school lessons. Seeing my father hack away every morning was deterrent enough. Neither myself nor any of my friends ever felt the need to smoke because of what went on in the movies, either. There were other reasons my friends did it.

Most of the people I know who started smoking did so because of peer pressure, which can be just as powerful as the anti-smoking messages. The majority of kids who are on the verge of smoking won’t cross that line because of a movie. They’ll do it because of their friends and family (unless they are intelligent enough to know better). That’s what the message needs to be focused on — not the movies. Of course, there could be other motivations here.

The first two goals of this site paint an interesting picture of its plans. It wants to “eliminate tobacco use depiction from all newly produced G, PG and PG-13 movies, unless the presentation of tobacco clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use or represents accurately the smoking behavior of an actual (as opposed to fictional) historical figure.” That sounds similar to some of the rules put in place during the Seduction of the Innocent days of comic books. One of the rules then was that criminals could never come out ahead of the law, and the only consequences of their crimes that could be shown had to be negative. Oddly enough, the anti-smoking group’s second goal goes even further.

Goal number two states that Scenesmoking.org wants to “encourage the entertainment industry to reduce and/or eliminate tobacco use depiction in R rated movies and other entertainment industry productions through education and through the denormalization of tobacco use within the industry.”

To have a site devoted to “lobbying the MPAA” and shaming Hollywood into dropping smoking from its movies is misguided at the very least and quite possibly artistically dangerous. To force creators into dropping smoking because some moronic child may take it up robs intelligent moviegoers of realistic characters. Obviously many characters don’t need to smoke — and they don’t. But some do, and I am disgusted by this group’s attempts to ultimately wipe out smoking in movies. Perhaps violence, foul language, sex, “radical” ideas, experimental camera angles and bad haircuts can be next in line.

(“Sandler’s newest, ‘Spanglish,’ is funny, but having ethnics in your house? Ewwwww.”)

The group wants to show why smoking isn’t cool, how it gets into movies, and the tobacco companies’ connections to Hollywood, which are all very good things to do, and I can’t fault the site for that. I think everyone should know these things (but I don’t think anyone should be shocked by any tobacco company’s attempts to turn children onto cancer sticks – that’s how capitalism works), and I think it’s great the site tries to get the word out. But it ultimately points to self-censorship for directors and writers. (And when that doesn’t work, groups often lobby the government to do what they couldn’t accomplish.)

I don’t want my daughter to smoke. I don’t think it’s healthy, and I don’t think it makes a person look “cool.” At the same time, I’m sure she’ll be smart enough to not be swayed by some two-dimensional image on the screen. I like to think my words and examples will have more of an influence. And as for the kids this site is going out of its way to rescue (while at the same time dumbing down our movies) — you can’t save people from themselves. People are often willing participants in their own demise, and no amount of preaching will help them. If kids want to smoke, they will.

You have to pick your battles, and this is one that won’t work in the long run. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. By demonizing smoking in the movies, some kids will find it even more appealing. (It works the same way when a CD gets hype for its obscene language.) And for that, this site gets a black lung from me — a non-smoker with a brain.

Discuss Doug Brunell’s “Excess Hollywood” column in Film Threat’s BACK TALK section! Click here>>>

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