Is that smoky movie a coincidence?

Saturday, June 2, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:54 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I appreciate our indoor smoking ban as much as the next person, assuming the next person isn’t a bar owner or a tobacco heiress. But when I heard that adult smoking could potentially give a movie an R rating, I confess I snorted.

Isn’t that going too far?

Not really, say the people behind the Smoke Free Movies campaign, who want any new movie with smoking to be rated R.

It won’t be.

Under the new rules, smoking has to be pervasive or glamorized to be a problem. And there is no promise smoking will be given as much consideration as sex or language.

Exceptions are if the smoking is appropriate for a historical character — and the example cited over and over is Edward R. Murrow and the ensemble dragging on cigarettes in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” — or if the film shows the consequences of smoking.

Movie ratings are determined by a Los Angeles board of about a dozen parents. The board is overseen by the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners. In other words, these are movie people policing themselves.

So what’s the problem? If we try to police movies further, aren’t we interfering with the artistic process?

Hardly, say the Smoke Free Movies advocates. They argue that smoking doesn’t appear in the movies by accident. Tobacco companies have labored for years, in secret, to make sure lots of puffing goes on in the pictures.

The Smoke Free Movies Web site quotes from tobacco industry documents such as this 1989 Philip Morris Market Research Study:

“We believe that most of the strong, positive images for cigarettes and smoking are created by cinema and television. We have seen the heroes smoking in ‘Wall Street,’ ‘Crocodile Dundee,’ and ‘Roger Rabbit.’ Mickey Rourke, Mel Gibson, and Goldie Hawn are forever seen, both on and off the screen, with a lighted cigarette. It is reasonable to assume that films and personalities have more influence on consumers than a static poster … .”

Since 1990, however, tobacco companies have been telling the Federal Trade Commission that they aren’t paying, in money or products, to get their smokes or brands in the pictures.

Smoke Free Movies thinks they’re blowing smoke because tobacco companies have a history of telling whoppers. And they think they have something to do with the fact that there is more smoking in the movies now than in the general population – and more than in movies 50 years ago.

That matters because movies are considered one of smoking’s best recruiters among young kids. And most smokers start as children or teens.

Studies show that the more images of smoking kids see, the more likely they are to try smoking. Children with nonsmoking parents seem more influenced by film images, according to a Dartmouth study, probably because they aren’t exposed to the everyday realities of smoking by their parents. Or it may be because the children of smokers are already at a higher risk of starting.

At any rate, the study found that kids who saw the most movies with smoking images were nearly three times more likely to try smoking than children who saw the fewest movies.

I understand. I’m a big fan of the classic movies. “To Have and Have Not” is one of my favorites. Lauren Bacall meets Humphrey Bogart asking for a match for her cigarette. The two light up 19 times during the film.

Their second film, “The Big Sleep,” opens with Bogart lighting Bacall’s cigarette. They burn up 15 more before the movie is over.

I saw those movies as a teen and, boy, did I want to smoke. I didn’t because my parents didn’t want me to and that mattered more. Still, I understood the attraction.

I’ve checked other old films: 31 cigarettes, pipes or cigars in “The Quiet Man”; eight in “It’s a Wonderful Life”; two cigarettes in “The Sound of Music” — for the baroness.

Nothing’s going to happen to these oldies. The adjustments in the rating system is strictly for new films.

But maybe we should add a little epilogue to any movie about the fate of the actors who smoked. Something simple will do: Humphrey Bogart died of cancer of the esophagus. He was 57.

That’s truth in movie advertising.

Mary Lawrence teaches editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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