A story about parents trying to protect their children from the temptation of smoking would never make a Hollywood script.
Yet Hollywood, by continuing to glamorize tobacco use on the big screen, has helped create this very real drama in millions of American homes.
A new study finds 95 percent of the most popular movies from 1988 to 1997 depict actors using tobacco - with a major character doing so in more than half the movies. And of the films aimed at children, 1 out of 5 featured smoking.
Does all this have anything to do with the fact that 23 percent of high school seniors in the United States smoke daily? (And that figure was 17 percent eight years ago.)
Perhaps. Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire, who studied the movies over the 10-year period, are exploring a possible link between smoking in movies and this worrisome trend among teens.
Emulating a movie star's cinematic behavior may go beyond just smoking, the study suggests. Among female characters who smoked on screen, tobacco use was depicted with scenes of reckless driving, illegal activities, or sexual affairs. In other words, "bad" women smoke.
Playing to the male macho side, the movies showed men smoking during violent or dangerous acts. In other words, "tough" guys do it.
On average, tobacco use is shown only two minutes in each movie. But that's enough to advertise a dangerous lifestyle to impressionable or rebellious children. And that time is short enough that taking out the smoking probably wouldn't ruin whatever artistic merit it was supposed to have.
The study found the highest incidence of smoking in R-rated films. But there was no difference in the amount of smoking between PG and PG-13 films.
The irony is that movie directors often claim to be depicting "reality" by showing smokers when the reality is that the world is turning away from cigarettes.
Smoking is on the decline in nearly all the major cigarette-consuming countries, including France, China, and Japan. The number of cigarettes smoked fell 3 percent in 1999. In the US last year, the decline was an amazing 8 percent.
While the decline is likely due to health concerns, smoking now also carries a stigma of addiction. By not smoking, people can claim a certain mastery over their lives that doesn't depend on chemical substances.
The nonsmoking movement has achieved many successes in the past few decades. One of them was forcing Hollywood to end the practice of taking money for placing tobacco brands prominently in a movie.
It would be one more small step to rid American cinema of all tobacco.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society