There's no doubt that smoking imagery in films can influence younger people to start smoking.
Professor Stanton Glantz of the University of California says that research in the USA suggests that, in that country, on-screen smoking scenes constitutes 'the single biggest impulse for kids to start smoking.' Across the country, he says, the influence of the movies accounts for 400,000 new teenage smokers per year.
We've known that for a long time, of course. But this month Glantz and his team of researchers in California say that they have unearthed documents that suggest that this is no chance phenomenon, but rather the result of a concerted marketing campaign in Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age" of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
The report says tobacco firms paid huge amounts for endorsements in Hollywood and adds that this mutually beneficial marketing campaign still has big repercussions today.
The most important thing the researchers say they found were documents of the very important financial deals between the tobacco companies and the studios in Hollywood, going back to the very beginnings of talking pictures in 1927. Glantz explains: "People have known for a long time that stars appeared in cigarette adverts endorsing various brands, but the thing we didn't know was that these deals were actually brokered by the studios that controlled the stars."
Professor Glantz says that the studios received very substantial benefits from these deals with the tobacco companies. "Not only was there a lot of money changing hands but, more importantly, these cigarette adverts were cross-promoting movies."
One of the key documents uncovered by the researchers was a list of payments for a single year in the late 1930s detailing how much stars were paid by American Tobacco, the makers of Lucky Strike.
Leading ladies like Barbara Stanwyck were handed $10,000, equivalent to just under $150,000 in today's money, to endorse the brand. The long-lashed beauty Claudette Colbert endorsed 5 different brands over her long career, including this one: "Claudette Colbert tells how the throat-strain of emotional acting led her to Luckies,"
"What do I do with my hands?"
Glantz says that the social and political ties between the tobacco industry and Hollywood were equally important: "They created the myth that smoking on screen is an integral part of the artistic procedure."
Well there's no doubt that directors love the effect of smoking. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, the actor Kirk Douglas told this story:
"During my college years, my Navy service during World War II, and my years as an actor on Broadway, I never smoked. Then Hollywood beckoned, and I answered. My first picture was ''The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers,'' with Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin, in 1946.I had spoken only a few lines when the director, Lewis Milestone, stopped the action and said, ''Kirk, you should be smoking a cigarette in this scene.'' 'I don't smoke,'' I replied timidly.
''It's easy to learn,'' he said, and had the prop man hand me a cigarette."
Douglas goes on to tell how he felt so nauseous from that first cigarette that he vomited that day, but soon got the taste, was smoking more than 2 packs a day and went on to endorse Chesterfields. He says that cigarettes provided a cure for the insecurities of acting. "Many actors have trouble with their hands. Should they put them in their pockets? Should they put them behind their back? Do they have them at their sides? The cigarette answered the question."
Professor Glantz considers that a weak excuse, pointing out that Kirk Douglas seemed to know what do with his hands in Spartacus, just as Russell Crowe, one of the great modern day on-screen smokers, pulled off his smoldering portrayal of Maximus Decimus Meridius without the aid of a single drag.
Movie industry still say that smoking is part of character development or the need to create a realistic scene, but Glantz rejects this: "The relationship between tobacco smoking and Hollywood is all about business and money, not about artistic freedom."
That's surely only partly true since the endorsement deals of Hollywood's Golden Age are no longer be legal.
Cigarettes play such a prominent role in movies, because the film world is notoriously fond of self-referencing. We are so used to cigarettes being used as a sort of leitmotif in atmospheres of nervous tension or even, arguably perversely, seduction, that it's not surprising that directors use them. It might be unoriginal and rather uninspired, but it's an understandable trick. Smoking is embedded into the culture of Hollywood.
Rita Hayworth in "Gilda"
Professor Glantz says he aims to combat that. He has been campaigning to have stricter ratings applied to films that feature smoking scenes, arguing that "Removing smoking in movies accessible to children and teens would reduce youth smoking by 50%"
He's received what was probably unexpected backing from a spokesman for tobacco company Philip Morris, who told the Guardian newspaper: "We think that producers of film should think very carefully about including depictions of smoking, especially in movies that are likely to be seen by kids."
He has also been backed up by another unlikely candidate, Joe Eszterhas the screenwriter of Basic Instinct, who writes a Mea Culpa including the memorable line: "A cigarette in the hands of a Hollywood star onscreen is a gun aimed at a 12- or 14-year-old."
Eszterhas, who describes himself as a former "militant smoker" concludes:"we hide behind a smoke screen of phrases like ''creative freedom'' and ''artistic expression.'' Those lofty words are lies designed, at best, to obscure laziness. I know. I have told those lies. The truth is that there are 1,000 better and more original ways to reveal a character's personality. "
Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct"
'But what's next?' cry some fans, fearful of censorship. Will Glantz and his fellow anti-tobacco campaigners follow Senator Finisterre's lead in Jason Reitman's satirical film Thank You For Smoking and campaign to digitally remove cigarettes from classic films?
I meant the suggestion as a joke, but Glantz has clearly heard the quip once too often, snapping: "No-one is talking about that!"