Should smoking be allowed in films and TV?

New research indicates a link between watching films and smoking in teenagers - but how should we react?

A new study suggests teenagers are more likely to take up smoking if they watch films in which the characters smoke. The results of the research have prompted calls from health professionals to increase the BBFC age classification for films featuring scenes of smoking.


Dr Andrea Waylen, who led the study at the University of Bristol, said “Films ought to be rated by exposure to smoking in the same way that they are currently rated by level of violence,” while her colleague called for “a default 18 classification [in the UK] on all films containing smoking.”

The study asked 5,000 15-year-olds how many of 50 randomly chosen films featuring smoking they had watched. Those who’d seen the most films were 73 per cent more likely to have tried a cigarette than those exposed to the least, and 50 per cent more likely to currently be smokers.

Even after adjustments for other contributing factors such as alcohol use and smoking among peers, the teenagers who’d viewed the most films were still 32 per cent more likely to have tried a cigarette than those who had watched the least.

If these findings are correct, it seems likely they’d apply to television viewing, too. What steps might we take then? A ban on smoking in pre-watershed shows? If changes like these would genuinely lead to a reduction in smoking among young people, on one hand they’d be hard to argue against. On the other, what price authenticity and artistic integrity in the stories we tell on films and in television?

Would anyone dare ask Clint Eastwood to put out his cheroot in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Should the regulars of The Queen Vic or The Rovers Return be deprived of their between-pints fag out the back, where storylines are advanced (and important smirting takes place)? Surely these scenes are just reflections of popular culture, and the programmes are richer for them?

Acclaimed American 60s drama Mad Men is filmed through a permanent veil of smoke, most of its characters – be they hard-bitten ad men or housewives and mothers – only pausing between cigarettes to pour themselves another drink. It can seem over the top but it’s not an inaccurate portrayal of the time. Nearly everybody smoked.

New US series Pan Am, glamorising the world of early 1960s air travel (and coming soon to BBC2), has been dubbed “the next Mad Men” and is emulating the show (superficially, at least) in all but one way. There are the beautifully tailored outfits, the gorgeous sets, the sex – but there will be no smoking, despite the fact that, in those days, you needed the plane’s emergency lighting just to find your way to the toilet through the thick fug.

Does this deliberate omission take anything away from the drama? You could argue that it’s strange to pay attention to all the other period details – furnishings, dialogue, dress – yet ignore this one.

Dare I say it, smoking can be fun, too. That generally wholesome Friends has played with cigarettes on more than one occasion. Like the denizens of Walford and Weatherfield, Rachel spotted the potential social advantages of being a smoker, faking a habit so she could stand outside with her new boss where all the big business decisions were made.

Meanwhile, Chandler’s addiction – snatching drags in private moments – made him look desperate and pathetic, demonstrating that simply giving screen time to smoking doesn’t automatically glamorise it.

In fact, sometimes drama can go to the other extreme. In Neighbours, a teenaged Toady was so revolted after his first puffs of a cigarette that he hurled it away in disgust, promptly igniting local bar the Watering Hole and reducing it to a mound of ashes. You couldn’t ask for a more solid causal illustration of the dangers of smoking.

So, should we raise the age at which teenagers are allowed to watch films featuring smoking? Should the results of studies like this prompt us to think about changes to TV? Or is there a danger in all of this of extinguishing more than just the cigarettes?


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