Governments who want to ban smoking from films should butt out

Public health groups say censorship will stop teens from taking up smoking. But the proof isn’t in the puffing.

Martin Ruetschi/Keystone/Redux

Martin Ruetschi/Keystone/Redux

These should be salad days for anti-smoking crusaders. New data show only 15 per cent of Canadians currently smoke, and just 11 per cent on a daily basis. These are the lowest rates ever recorded; as recently as 1999, smokers made up a quarter of the population. The decline is even more pronounced among teenaged Canadians, suggesting this downward trend will continue well into the future. Despite such success, however, tobacco-control advocates seem perpetually unsatisfied—to the extent they’re now pushing measures that threaten the limits of good science, artistic freedom and civil society.

Smoking is obviously a significant health risk. While adults may choose to take it up in full knowledge of its dangers and costs, we properly restrict adolescents from making a similar choice. But how far should this effort go? The conference, Silencing Big Tobacco on the Big Screen, held in Toronto earlier this month, garnered considerable attention for its proposal that all movies featuring characters who smoke should be rated 18A (those under 18 need adult accompaniment). Impressionable young moviegoers would thus be shielded from the sight of such Hollywood role models as Cruella de Vil, the cigarette-wielding, dog-napping villain of the Disney movie 101 Dalmatians, and Gandalf, the pipe-puffing wizard from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.

Public health groups claim, with scientific certainty, that movie censorship will prevent teens from taking up the habit. U.S. research argues that 37 per cent of all teenaged smokers do so because they’ve been influenced by movies. Building on this, a study released last year by the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit obsessively toted up every glimpse of tobacco smoke across a decade’s worth of top-grossing films and declared that 4,237 residents of the province will die prematurely “as a result of tobacco imagery in movies.” Despite such exactitude, however, these claims are complicated by important questions of causality. Does the sight of a smoker in a movie seduce innocent teenagers into a lifetime of cigarette use, or do teenagers predisposed to rebellious behaviour simply prefer movies that show smoking, not to mention plenty of other equally risky activities? While anti-smoking researchers insist that their studies carefully isolate the effect of smoking on young viewers, teasing out such a nuance is simply not feasible, as Simon Chapman, editor emeritus of the academic journal Tobacco Control, has pointed out. Chapman strongly chastises the censorship movement for its “crude reductionism and questionable precision” in ignoring the near-perfect correlation between smoking and other dangerous activities in movies. The only solution to this statistical obstacle, he notes, would be to conjure a genre of movies full of smoking but lacking car chases, violence, guns, drugs, alcohol, sex, nudity, profanity and abuse of authority. Good luck with that.

The proof arising from this data is often underwhelming, as well. One of the most frequently referenced studies claiming to prove a link between cinematic smoking and youth behaviour surveyed 2,603 adolescents over 2½ years. Only six became new regular smokers. Most of the subjects mustered as evidence of the power of movie-induced smoking took “just a few puffs of a cigarette” over the entire period. It’s hardly a smoking gun. As the study itself reveals, parental behaviour exerts far more influence on adolescent tobacco use than personal taste in movies.

And, even setting aside serious defects of science, does anyone really think slapping an 18A rating on a movie will prevent unaccompanied teenagers from seeing the forbidden act of smoking? The tidal wave of pornography available for free on the Internet suggests not.

Then again, the end game is not to hide teenaged eyes from smoking in movies, but to eliminate it entirely. Faced with proposed ratings guidelines, advocates hope Hollywood will eventually remove cigarettes from all (or nearly all) of its movies to ensure the widest possible audience for its product. The campaign thus seeks control over the content of a popular art form through government regulation and coercion. Forcing the movie industry to deliver state-sanctioned religious or moral instruction would be immediately repulsive to Canadian society. Why should such a thing be acceptable in the name of promoting anti-smoking policy?

Lately, it has become popular for tobacco opponents to talk of “de-normalizing” cigarette use. New rules in Ontario and elsewhere, for example, have banned smoking outdoors in parks and sports fields—where second-hand smoke poses no legitimate health threat to others—to control what is considered normal, everyday behaviour. Plans to censor movies are similarly offensive, in that they also seek to limit what may be seen in public space. Disseminating information on the hazards of smoking remains an important function for the field of public health. But it is the not job of government to decide what normal looks like.

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Governments who want to ban smoking from films should butt out

  1. Presumably MacLean’s favors eliminating all movie classifications. As you point out, porn is widely available on the internet, so why would we use portrayals of violent sex to classify movies as 18A, or even R? If all that matters is free artistic expression, every movie should always be open to everyone. If MacLean’s does favor continuing to restrict children’s access to violent sexual imagery in movies, what evidence do you have that watching these movies leads children to act out those violent sexual activities? There is some evidence, admittedly not great, that children who view famous people they admire smoking, are more likely to start themselves.

  2. Yeah, to be realistic we should show snuff use, and people chewing tobacco with spittoons included….that’s always nice.

    This was the most important thing you could think of to write an editorial about?

  3. ***Come See The New “Healthy Humphrey” Bogart version of CASABLANCA! ***

    In the news today! The new film sure to be a hit with those under 18 who’ve never seen the original, clocks in at a Twitterverse pace of just 7 and a half minutes long! Not a single wisp of smoke or mention of alcohol in even a single frame of this Renewed Masterpiece!

    According to Director/Snipper Michaelious McFadden, “Healthy Hump’s green lungs will delight children and adults alike as the film can now be enjoyed in its pure full comfort with no need to shield one’s eyes from Puffing Perversions (PP’s) strutting around the screen hacking their carcinogenic lungs onto the sound stage between their gasping lines!”

    According to industry executives, next in line is a new CGI version of “Breakfast At Tiffanies” in which Audrey Hepburn shows just just how sexy it can be to munch on a celery stick while courting unknown authors!


    For those with a bit more of a leaning toward reality, I’d recommend reading Lie #2 at TheTruthIsALie.com where the claim that “MTV Is FILLED With Smoking” is put to the test with a stopwatch!

    When you’re done, come join us and keep warm at the bookburning where this week’s feature is “Tom Sawyer” — a nefariously nasty nicotine novel by a Mr. Samuel Clemens (who tried to hide his identity from the Health Police by calling himself Mike Twane or some such) in which CHILDREN ran off to an island and… and… I’m sorry, I can’t go any further… the horror, the horrrrrrorrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!!

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting AntiSm*k*rs’ Brains”

  4. The current antismoking crusade, very much in the eugenics tradition – involving the same medically-aligned personnel and repugnant methodology, is much like crusades over the previous 400 years. It is a moralizing, social-engineering, eradication/prohibition crusade decided upon in the 1970s by a small, self-installed clique of [medically-oriented] fanatics operating under the auspices of the World Health Organization and sponsored by the American Cancer Society (see the Godber Blueprint http://www.rampant-antismoking.com ). This little, unelected group, using much the same inflammatory rhetoric of its fanatical predecessors, decided for everyone that tobacco-use should be eradicated from the world – for a “better” (according to them) world. These fanatics were speaking of secondhand smoke “danger” and advocating indoor and OUTDOOR smoking bans years before the first study on SHS, and extortionate taxes on tobacco years before contrived “cost burden” analyses of smoking: In the 1970s, populations – particularly in relatively free societies – weren’t interested in elitist social-engineering, particularly by a group (medically-aligned) that had a horrible recent track record (eugenics). Given that their antismoking crusade would have otherwise stalled, the zealots conjured secondhand smoke “danger” to advance the social-engineering agenda, i.e., inflammatory propaganda. Until only recently the zealots claimed they weren’t doing social engineering, that they weren’t moralizing. Well, that’s a lie that’s been told many times over the last few decades.

    The zealots’ goal this time is not to ban the sale of tobacco but to ban smoking in essentially all the places that people smoke (combined with extortionate taxes), indoors and out. Up until recently the social-engineering intent has been masqueraded as protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke “danger”. But even this fraud can no longer be hidden in that bans are now being instituted for large outdoor areas such as parks, beaches, university campuses where there is not even any concocted “health” issue for nonsmokers. This dangerous mix of the medically-aligned attempting social engineering is a throwback to a century ago. We seem to have learned nothing of value from very painful lessons of only the recent past.

  5. It’s America that’s popularized antismoking insanity – again, and which other countries are following suit. The problem with Americans is that they are clueless to even their own recent history. America has a terrible history with this sort of “health” fanaticism/zealotry/extremism or “clean living” hysteria – including antismoking – that goes back more than a century.

    Antismoking is not new. It has a long, sordid, 400+ year history, much of it predating even the pretense of a scientific basis or the more recent concoction of secondhand smoke “danger”. Antismoking crusades typically run on inflammatory propaganda, i.e., lies, in order to get law-makers to institute bans. Statistics and causal attribution galore are conjured. The current antismoking rhetoric has all been heard before. All it produces is irrational fear and hatred, discord, enmity, animosity, social division, oppression, and bigotry. When supported by the State, zealots seriously mess with people’s minds on a mass scale.

    For a brief history of antismoking, see:
    “Cigarette Wars: The ‘Triumph’ of the Little White Slaver” (1998) by Cassandra Tate. Google the following combination – “the endless war on tobacco” “seattletimes” – which should bring up a summary article of the book at the Seattle Times.

    Gordon L. Dillow (1981), “Thank You for Not Smoking” [The Hundred-Year War Against the Cigarette]

    Robert Proctor (1996), “The anti-tobacco campaign of the N#zis: a little known aspect of public health in Germany, 1933-45”

  6. This attempt to get an R-rating for movies containing depictions of smoking is the latest in the prohibition crusade. It’s a World Health Organization “initiative”:

    And the next “logical” step will be banning smoking in all public places, indoor and out, because if children need “protection” from smoking scenes in movies, then how much more “protection” do they need from actual people smoking in public.

  7. Prohibition by “salami slices”. Here’s a brief history of the antismoking madness (Godber Blueprint) over the last few decades.

    The first demand for a smoking ban was in the late-1980s concerning short-haul flights in the USA of less than 2 hours. At the time, the antismokers were asked if this was a “slippery slope” – where would it end? They ridiculed anyone suggesting such because this ban was ALL that they were after.
    Then they ONLY wanted smoking bans on all flights.
    Then the antismokers ONLY wanted nonsmoking sections in restaurants, bars, etc., and ensuring that this was ALL they wanted.
    Then the antismokers ONLY wanted complete bans indoors. That was all they wanted. At the time, no-one was complaining about having to “endure” wisps of smoke outdoors.

    While they pursued indoor bans, the antismokers were happy for smokers to be exiled to the outdoors. Having bulldozed their way into indoor bans, the antismokers then went to work on the outdoors, now declaring that momentary exposure to remnants of smoke in doorways or a whiff outdoors was a “hazard”, more than poor, innocent nonsmokers should have to “endure”.
    Then they ONLY wanted bans within 10 feet of entrance ways.
    Then they ONLY wanted bans within 20 feet of entrance ways.
    Then they ONLY wanted bans in entire outdoor dining areas.
    Then they ONLY wanted bans for entire university and hospital campuses and parks and beaches.
    Then they ONLY wanted bans for apartment balconies.
    Then they ONLY wanted bans for entire apartment (including individual apartments) complexes.

    On top of all of this, there are now instances where smokers are denied employment, denied housing (even the elderly), and denied medical treatment. Smokers in the UK are denied fostering/adoption. Involuntary mental patients are restrained physically or chemically (sedation) or multi-day solitary confinement rather than allow them to have a cigarette – even outside. In some countries there are also compounded extortionate taxes.

    At each point there was a crazed insistence that there was no more to come while they were actually planning the next ban and the brainwashing required to push it. The incessant claim was that they were not doing “social engineering” (prohibition) when the current antismoking crusade has been so from the outset, just like pretty well every previous antismoking crusade.

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