Prime Time Crime  


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of June 4, 2007)

Victory just a smoke screen


  By John Martin

'Regardless of what you think of the anti-tobacco lobby, you have to give them credit for one thing-they don't take holidays.

What started out as a reasonable and overdue campaign to ban smoking in commercial airplanes several years ago has turned into an all out war on tobacco and those who insist on taking up and maintaining the habit.

Fresh off successful campaigns to ban smoking in parks and on patios, they're now celebrating a victory over the Motion Picture Association of America.

From now on, smoking will be considered much the same as violence, sex and foul language in determining how a movie will be rated.

Movies where smoking appears to be glamorized will be eligible for an R rating. In which case, those under 17 will not be admitted without a parent or guardian.

Films in which the characters smoke would also have to include advisory warnings detailing the nature and extent of tobacco use.

The whole issue around movies and television influencing behaviour, especially among kids, is still uncharted territory. The countless studies and experiments looking at the impact of television violence on youth are inconclusive, though the activists would have you believe otherwise.

On the other hand, we saw Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice inspire viewers to walk around with facial stubble, wearing sleeveless undershirts and pastel-coloured blazers, making a generation of young men look absolutely ridiculous.

While there's a lack of empirical evidence that smoking in movies directly encourages youth to take up the habit, it's reasonable to assume many young males were influenced the first time they saw Humphrey Bogart as private dick Philip Marlowe with the ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth-or Clint Eastwood chewing his trademark cigarillo in the spaghetti western trilogy.

One of the most memorable scenes in all of film history comes from the 1942 movie Now, Voyageur in which Jerry Durance puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them both and passes one to the stunning Bette Davis.

In an era where on-camera intimacy was tricky, the smoking scene was regarded as the height of cinematic sensuality. It also is considered to have done more for the tobacco industry than any ad campaign.

The move to consider tobacco use in a film in order to determine its rating is actually more symbolic than substantive.

Films where smoking is common tend already to be aimed toward adult audiences. And the industry has already voluntarily backed down as evidenced by the reformed, socially conscious, non-smoking, James Bond. Killing dozens is still OK-just don't smoke while doing so.

But it's a crucial first step toward outright banning smoking from the big screen, which is surely what the anti-tobacco groups are after.

And this will no doubt be an inspiration to all the other holier-than-thou moral crusaders who know better than you how you should live your life.

Don't be surprised when the day comes that similar ratings and advisories are applied to movies where the major character drives a gas-guzzler, rides a bike without a helmet or orders a cheeseburger and soda in a diner.

There goes the big-screen Happy Days reunion project.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at

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