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Cigarettes have been smoked in films since the first nickelodeon machine provided the first avid viewer with a glimpse into an unknown world. In the past it provided the film characters with an activity to pursue on screen while telling each other about gin joints and not giving a damn. But recently, smoking in films has been on a large scale decline; understandably as the two references to movies I just made were filmed during a time where many doctors were still prescribing cigarettes for all kinds of ailments. Only natural then that cigarettes would appear in films so casually.
Nowadays, it’s very different. When we see characters in the cinema light up a cigarette, we know one of two things. Firstly, that they are a “baddie” and will in all probability be opposed to the hero’s attempts to save the day. Secondly, that they might in fact be the hero, but during the course of the film will have their rough edges honed back to reveal a perfectly smoke-free protagonist bent on saving the day. At least for the most part these two factors seem to be true.
It wasn’t so long ago that the picture of the hero was very different. Closer to the portrait the silver screen once painted. Bruce Willis used to smoke every other minute in the Die Hard series, eliminating the bad guys at regular intervals to his smoke breaks. Mel Gibson went to the same school of crime fighting in the Lethal Weapon films, playing a relatively psychotic detective who would calmly squeeze a few rounds off his pistol while nonchalantly a cigarette hung from his mouth. The drill sergeants, the femme fatale, the wizened old man full of wisdom – all of these characters at one point were epitomized by what they were smoking. A cigar for the first, sleek and slim lights for the second and maybe a pipe for the third. No doubt one of them would have a recognisable form of tobacco.
But as said, things have changed and the original two factors have taken over the role of smoking in films. Which is understandable. Smoking is bad for you, smoking causes bad health and smoking kills. How would the hero save the day if he was unable to run down and catch the baddie if he was out of breath? How would he/she live to see the happy conclusion where the world is saved? Fact is; they wouldn’t. But smoking in the past represented an edge for audiences to associate with. It lay somewhere between the socially acceptable and unacceptable, while now it has shifted over to the latter entirely. It gave us as viewers something to identify as unique and symbolic for a role. Why did we once see the hero as hardened, grizzled and tough? They smoked, that’s why.
Now the heroes have changed, along with the general opinion of smoking a it’s deteriorated. In America, the FDA recently implemented plans to increase graphic warning labels on the packs of cigarettes and more areas in the United States are becoming “smoke-free” areas where smoking is entirely banned. Similar legislation is being put into place around the world, including in the UK. It’s essentially only a natural progression that the “frowning” on smoking would become more and more pronounced in the media we consume. Films no different.
Using the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series again as an example, in the respective first films, both protagonists smoked like chimneys. By the end of them, with the Die Hard films being more recent, neither character smoked – for that matter cigarettes were hardly seen at all. It may not be the biggest blockbuster or cult film to use as an example, but the range of time the films span fits in neatly with this trend.
Personally, I think it’s a good thing. As an ex-smoker I found it difficult watching characters on screen smoke without wanting joining them. And while the debate about the influence and impact smoking on screen has/had on getting new smokers to start will probably continue on forever, I think smokers can at least concede it made us want to smoke more. Which is a bad thing for our health in the end. And ultimately why the cultural phenomenon has changed, because the rest of society has.