Back then, Bogie made smoking cool. But everyone has known for 50 years that smoking is better at filling coffins than theaters. So who needs it in an animated film aimed at children?
Certainly not the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has labeled the film a health hazard for children, prompting Paramount to say that “the images of smoking in the film … are portrayed by supporting characters and are not intended to be celebrated or emulated.”
But pleading ignorance doesn’t alter the impact. What difference is there between the appeal of Paramount’s cigarette-smoking characters and the appeal of Joe Camel, a creature of tobacco advertising lore? Or, for that matter, the Marlboro Man? Little, except perhaps the age group targeted.
Millions of kids helped make Rango the No. 2 box-office draw last weekend, and research going back a decade shows that adolescents with higher exposure to movie smoking are much more likely to try cigarettes than their peers.
The studies, particularly a series done at Dartmouth Medical School, suggest that after adolescents see smoking scenes they view tobacco use more positively and think most adults smoke. (That, of course, is fiction: Smoking among U.S. adults has fallen to about 20%.) Nor do films show another reality of smoking — the illness and death it causes.
We’re not suggesting that smoking be banned in films. Movie makers are free to do as they wish. And we’re not even proposing — as many anti-smoking advocates do — that movies with smoking be rated R, barring those under 17 unless they’re with a parent. It wouldn’t do much good, what with DVDs and videos streaming onto computer screens and into homes.
We’re suggesting that Paramount showed poor judgment. And so have others. According to advocacy group Smoke-Free Movies, 21 Oscar-nominated films last year, including many rated PG and PG-13, had characters smoking. At least when King George VI lights up in Academy Award-winning The King’s Speech, a pointed anti-smoking message is served up with wit.
Some defenders of smoking scenes argue that smoking is no different from the violence that permeates so many films. They miss the point. Violence is an integral part of many movie plots, from action flicks to murder mysteries to police dramas.
And smoking? We’re pretty sure nobody bought tickets to Rango because they wanted to see a fox or toad with a cigarette.