Hollywood kicks a noxious habit

Disney's ban on smoking in some of its movies is part of an inexorable shift in public perception.

In the 1961 Disney cartoon movie "101 Dalmatians," the evil Cruella De Vil waves a long cigarette holder as she goes about kidnapping puppies. If Disney holds true to its word, its future characters – even its villains – won't be caught spewing smoke and ash.

The media giant announced last week it would eliminate smoking from films made by its Walt Disney Studios, which targets families. While the ban is partial and long overdue, it will at least contribute to an inexorable shift in public perception that tobacco smoking need not claim one more addict.

Disney, the second-largest media company in the US after Time Warner, said its other studios, Touchstone and Miramax, will discourage but not ban scenes with smoking. The company also will include antismoking messages with DVDs of films that depict smoking and will ask theaters to run antismoking ads when its films include smoking.

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These moves highlight an accelerating shift within the entertainment industry. In April, Universal Studios announced it would ban smoking in its youth-oriented films and that movies that do depict smoking would carry a health warning. In May, the Motion Picture Association of America said it would consider making smoking scenes a factor in giving ratings on films.

In wider society, bans on smoking in public places continue to spread. A new law blocking smoking in restaurants and pubs took effect in Britain July 1. Most of Germany's 16 states plan to prohibit public smoking next year, and Illinois will become the 22nd US state with such a law by year's end.

Research studies continue to point to a relationship between smoking on screen and off. In May, researchers at Dartmouth Medical School found that Hollywood movies deliver billions of smoking "impressions" to preteen and teen audiences in the US and abroad. They studied 534 recent box-office hits and found that 3 out of 4 contained scenes of smoking. Based on the number of scenes and the likely number of viewers aged 10 to 14, they estimated that the young viewers had been exposed to nearly 14 billion scenes of smoking. The lead researcher, Dr. James Sargent, called this free advertising of smoking to impressionable youths "a tobacco marketer's dream."

Older films often associated smoking with glamour, independence, rebellion, or seduction. No one is likely to argue seriously that the pervasive puffing in classic films like "Casablanca" should be excised. But more and more, smoking in movies should be seen as a historical artifact, a deleterious social habit that society wisely rejects.

New productions set in earlier times pose a special problem for filmmakers and audiences. "Mad Men," a summer TV drama about advertising executives in the early 1960s that has won positive reviews, is seen through the heaviest haze of smoking onscreen in recent memory. Characters constantly light up at home or work while crushing butts into heaping ashtrays or brushing ashes from their clothing. Ironically, none of the actors smokes in real life, and onscreen they're actually puffing on herbal, tobacco-less props.

The effect is surreal: The show becomes an anthropological look at a strange time, long ago, when people poked an obnoxious burning paper cylinder into their mouths.

That's the impression smoking onscreen should always leave.

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