New research has suggested that films featuring cigarettes are unsuitable for teenagers. Vicky Morris asks whether such proposals are worth listening to.
Some of the most iconic images in film are incomplete without an actor smoking: Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, with a long cigarette holder poking out from under her hat as she sports her little black dress, or Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly puffing on a cigar, shadowed by his cowboy hat. But as our perception of smoking has changed to one of negativity, images like these have become less common.
In fact, pick any commercial film made in the last five years, set in the modern day, in which a hero is depicted smoking. Nowadays, smoking in film is usually used either to recreate the culture of an era, or to portray an ultimately bad character. It would seem that the film industry has gone some distance to change how it portrays smoking, but for some, not far enough – especially when it comes to underage smoking.
The issue of smoking in films is one that refuses to go away, and a recent report into the influence of film has again brought up the debate. The report, undertaken by Thorax, has found evidence to suggest that smoking in films does have an influence on young people’s decision to smoke. They found that among 15 year olds, those who watched more films, including characters smoking, were 75 per cent more likely to try a cigarette and 50 per cent more likely to be a current smoker, than those who had watched few films which incorporated smoking. These findings led Thorax to recommend that all films featuring smoking should be given an 18 certificate suggesting that depicting smoking is equal to showing illegal drug abuse and violence in films.
Is film really that influential on how we choose to behave? I myself believe these recommendations are out of proportion. As if, once again, we are completely overstating the power of media in pushing people to do something. In the past, cinema has been blamed for extreme violence, drug abuse and a whole list of other wrongs, despite the other range of factors that drive people to behave in the way they do.
I am a passionate and avid filmgoer, watching thousands of movies, some of which included smoking. Never when watching these have I thought to pick up a cigarette. I put my decision not to smoke, down to the influence of family and friends. To me it seems influences like these have a much stronger weight, and if film does have a sway in a decision, it is one of many factors in a bigger picture with minimal powers of persuasion.
Changes to the rating classification system could significantly alter the film landscape. For example, under Thorax’s suggestions the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians would be changed from U to 18, due to the chain-smoking habits of villain Cruella De Vil. I beg to ask what child would aspire to be like the puppy-murdering criminal in the first place.
“The film industry has gone some distance to change how it portrays smoking – but for some not far enough”
Regardless, the research was primarily aimed at those aged 15. As current regulations stand, although each film is considered on its own merits, the BBFC will look to classify a film as 15 if characters are depicted smoking. To me 15 seems an appropriate age as you would assume they should know how to weigh up the risks of smoking before taking it up.
It would be a real shame if regulations like these were introduced into film: education is a better place to combat these problems; it is not an issue for the arts to deal with. If a smoking character leads to an 18-rating, filmmakers would be put off for fear of not reaching as wide an audience. If this was the case, the public would be missing out on great, realistic film-making for the sake of cigarettes.
Regardless of the recommendations made, both the government and the BBFC seem reluctant to take on these measures and have stuck by the current regulations relating to film classification. Nevertheless, the issue is a potent one and I think it will be a long time before we see it put to bed for good.