Rob Reiner, co-founder of Castle Rock Entertainment, was appalled when he saw his studio's film Proof of Life. It wasn't that he could predict the movie's demise at the box office. "I thought, ‘Wow, why is Meg Ryan smoking up a storm?'" Reiner says. "It didn't add to the plot." Fourteen months later, Castle Rock now has a policy of discouraging tobacco use. Any actor, director or screenwriter who wants to depict it must first meet with Reiner. "They have to make a really good case," he says. "Movies are basically advertising cigarettes to kids."
Movie characters light up more often than people do in real life, argues Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who has launched a "Smoke-Free Movies" newspaper ad campaign. His study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, found that on average the 20 top-grossing films featured 50% more instances of smoking an hour in 2000 than in 1960. And an American Lung Association survey discovered that 61% of the tobacco use in films last year occurred in family- and teen-rated movies. With youth smoking up dramatically in the past decade, a movement is building to hold Hollywood accountable. Says Glantz: "The entertainment industry is in denial."
But it's getting an education. Susan Moses, deputy director of Harvard's Center for Health Communication, and Lindsay Doran, former head of United Artists, have been going door to door among the studios. They hit the honchos with hard facts: a million American teens a year become daily smokers, and a third of those will eventually die from tobacco-related illness. When Doran and Moses met with executives from Imagine Pictures, says Doran, "they said, ‘Smoking is not in any of our scripts.' But then they called the next day and said, ‘We looked, and it's everywhere.'" Karen Kehela, co-chairman of Imagine, recalls trying to take smoking out of one script after the meeting, "but the actor insisted on smoking," she says. In fact, many movie stars are hooked on the habit. "Actors who smoke look for any reason to incorporate it into their characters," Reiner says. "You have directors who don't care about the social implications or are kowtowing to the actors."
Last month, the American Lung Association gave its Hackademy Award to Sissy Spacek and In the Bedroom for using Marlboros throughout the film. Dishonorable Mentions went to Charlie's Angels and Save the Last Dance-smoke-filled movies aimed at adolescents. "Teens imitate onscreen behavior," says Doran. And it's not enough to make the good guy a nonsmoker because "bad guys are cool."
If all the friendly meetings and cutely named awards fail, critics have a solution the industry will hate: require an R rating on movies that glamorize smoking. "If your movie has the F word twice, you get rated R," says Reiner. "But that's a lot less harmful to a kid."
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