Health watchdog fumes as stars fail to stub out

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The Independent Online
Smouldering its way through dozens of films, the cigarette has been seen as a traditional accompaniment to the film stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

But tobacco firms were yesterday accused of targeting the film industry in an attempt to get round a future advertising ban. The Health Education Authority has raised the concerns after finding the number of smoking scenes in hit films increased four-fold between 1990 and 1995.

New research by the HEA found that the number of smoking scenes had risen dramatically since the beginning of the decade. In 1997, 40 per cent of the top 10 box-office hits had more than 10 smoking scenes compared with 10 per cent in 1990 films.

The study also found that 80 per cent of the top 10 films made in 1990 and 1995 - among them the blockbusters Apollo 13 and Total Recall - contained some smoking scenes. There were six times as many cigarette brand names featured in films made two years ago than in 1990 - with one brand in particular featuring heavily.

Those particularly "guilty" included Bruce Willis in the action thriller Die Hard with a Vengeance, Christian Slater in Interview with a Vampire and Kurt Russell in Stargate. In Space Jam, the male baddie is rarely seen without a cigar and the smoking in Muriel's Wedding says the HEA seems to be linked to the primary characters' desire to be different and shed their inhibitions.

In 1990, about 20 per cent of leading characters were seen smoking but this rose to 48 per cent by 1995. The authors of the report found that smoking was increasingly being used to portray "bad guys" or characters generally seen as unsympathetic. Smoking was also more likely to be featured in pressured or stressful situations rather than sexy scenes.

The HEA wants the film industry to reconsider how smoking is portrayed after concluding that young people are influenced by images of stars smoking, including Robert de Niro and Kevin Costner, and often copy the habits of their icons.

Figures produced by the HEA show that 16-24 year-olds in England are the only group where smoking has increased over recent years. Of the 6 million people in this age group, approximately 1.85 million are regular smokers.

There are approximately 121,000 deaths every year in the UK attributed to smoking, and the authority says the vast majority of smokers would like to give up their habit.

There were also six times as many cigarette brand names featured in 1995 films. Keith Bolling, the Health Education Authority expert who researched the report, said: "The overwhelming majority of brands featured in films were Marlboro. It is perhaps not surprising that when the opportunities for advertising cigarettes are becoming fewer for tobacco companies, that they are looking for other ways of keeping cigarettes in the public eye."

Kenneth MacKinnon, professor of film studies at the University of North London, who co-wrote the report, said smoking was now being used as an image of rebellion. "Smoking can now be portrayed as quite virtuous today. It is a way of challenging the establishment view, it is a way of fighting what is called health fascism. That is a notion which young people can latch on to."

John Carlisle, executive director of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, said the HEA claims were "complete rubbish". And he added:"The HEA has absolutely no evidence to back up this claim, they are trying the appoint themselves as a new type of health censor."