I ran a series of “open letters” in Daily Variety a few years ago trying to make actors and directors and producers think twice about promoting cigarettes.

Sometimes they do it for cash. (Philip Morris paid $42,500 to get Lois Lane to smoke Marlboro lights in one of the Superman movies and $350,000 to get James Bond to smoke Larks in License to Kill.) More often, they do it inadvertently.

But really: why did environmentalist Robert Redford, who directed A River Runs Through It have to have his two wonderfully healthy, attractive young stars out fly-fishing in the clear crystal Montana air (well, or someplace like Montana) be smokers?

If you start looking for this in movies, as I do, you may be surprised to find smoking in almost every movie — and usually by a very sexy character. Sometimes, true, it’s “the bad guy” who smokes, or there may be jokes about smoking’s being bad for you. But to a rebellious fourteen year old, this just makes smoking all the more appealing. Better, when smoking is not really necessary to the story, to leave it out.

“Ah,” you say. “Movies would not be believable without smoking.”

But do you find the general absence of smoking on TV unbelievable or annoying? If the actors/role-models on “Friends” and “Seinfeld” smoked, would you enjoy those shows more? NYPD Blue? Baywatch? Would the ratings go up?

Nah.

All this came to mind last week when I saw A Time to Kill. It’s a good movie — and the Tobacco Institute’s dream.

There you have Matthew McConaughey, on the covers of four national magazines and the man every teenage girl is swooning over, in a movie with Sandra Bullock, young, thin, beautiful, sexy, smart-as-a-tack — what every young girl wants to be. And sure enough, for almost two hours, Matthew wants Sandra. What young girl seeing this wouldn’t want to be exactly like Sandra?

The good news — the great news for the tobacco industry is that Sandra Bullock smokes.

Not in real life, of course. She’s too smart for that in real life. She only smokes in the movie.

Yet most young girls don’t know this (or that in real life McConaughey might prefer her as a nonsmoker). They see a beautiful, healthy, snappy smoker desired by Matthew McConaughey and they want to be just like her.

It’s the best kind of free advertising, especially because the target audience is young.

Watch from now on: you will find smoking in almost all the movies you see. Why not urge the movie folks to adopt the same voluntary restraints as the TV industry? (And why not ask the TV folks to stop what appears to be a slide back from decades of such restraint?)

If we’re expected to suspend our disbelief and accept that Matthew McConaughey could introduce stunning new information in his “summation” at trial (something no lawyer could get away with in real life) why would it be straining credulity to ask us to believe that Sandra Bullock’s character, the bright, liberal law student, impassioned against the death penalty, doesn’t smoke?

It’s a question that doesn’t seem to occur to most actors and directors. But because smoking is the nation’s leading cause of preventable death, it should.

 

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