Smoke Screen

The characters who smoke on film may be least likely to do so in real life.

By PT Staff, published September 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The only people lighting up in movie theaters these days are the characterson screen. Yet those most likely to smoke on film are among the least likely to do so in reality: the virile, successful white male.

In fact, white male movie heroes smoke at three times the rate of the average college-educated white male, say University of California at San Francisco researchers.

And if the smokers in the movies look familiar, it's because they are the same people leering at you from highway billboards. "The presentation of smoking in the media is more consistent with tobacco advertising than with reality," says Stanton Glantz, Ph.D., reporting in the American Journal of Public Health. "In real life, heroes don't smoke; it's the uneducated and poor. They're the people advertisers prey on."

Although smoking has declined significantly among the general public, tobacco use on film remained stable between 1960 and 1990. And kids are now involved in smoking scenes at more than double the rate they were three decades ago.

Glantz is fuming over the high smoking rate on screen. "The tobacco industry swears that it isn't doing more product placement" in films, he says. But the cardiologist suspects tobacco firms are setting their sights on teens who, in their endless quest for cool, may settle into a lucrative, lifetime cigarette habit.

If that's the industry's strategy, it seems to be working: Some 3,000 teenagers start smoking every day. Though no specific movie character or ad makes a kid smoke, says Glantz, together they normalize tobacco use and equate it with power, success, and virility. "When you smoke, you are putting a flamethrower in your mouth and inhaling poison chemicals. It takes some doing to get people to do that."