The rest of the world may be giving up smoking, but Hollywood just can't kick the habit. According to the most comprehensive research ever done on tobacco on screen, leading characters are lighting up in more than nine out of 10 films, while a fifth of movies aimed at children feature smoking.
The findings are the result of work by a team of American researchers at Dartmouth Medical School, New Hampshire. They looked at the 250 highest-grossing US films over 10 years and discovered that in 95 per cent of them the characters are continuing to smoke. In the worst cases, the stars are seen puffing away for a third of the films' duration.
JFK, Oliver Stone's Oscar-winner starring Kevin Costner, came out as the worst offender of the 1990s and was branded the smokiest film. It was quickly followed by Dick Tracy and Bugsy. Cocktail and Pulp Fiction featured smoking on screen for almost a third of their entire length, while Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, Titanic and Get Shorty also featured tobacco prominently.
The researchers analysed the top 25 box-office hits from each year from 1988 to 1997. They counted the number of times a major or minor character smoked a cigarette or cigar and recorded how long smoking was shown on screen. A total of 3,346 occurrences of tobacco use or imagery were identified in the 250 films. One fifth of these involved use by ancillary characters, and almost a third involved background tobacco imagery. In more than half of the movies analysed, the major character smoked.
Although Hollywood has now formally renounced fees for placing tobacco brands prominently in view, it still uses cigarettes as a cinematic shorthand denoting ruggedness in men, or vampishness in female characters.
Tobacco use by major characters was also associated with other high-risk behaviour and was portrayed differently for men and women. Among female characters who smoked on screen, smoking was associated with sexual affairs, illegal activities and reckless driving.
In contrast, smoking was used by male characters to show violent behaviour and dangerous acts. The interaction between tobacco use, gender and the portrayal of specific behaviour suggests that tobacco may be used to characterise "tough" men and "bad" women, the researchers said.
Professor Sargent said: "Adolescents respond to role models and persons of star status by emulating them. By allowing stars to depict smoking behaviour on screen, the movie industry may be contributing to the current epidemic of adolescent tobacco use."
Doctors and anti-smoking campaigners have jumped on the findings, condemning the widespread smoking as irresponsible. The high level of smoking on screen runs counter to the realities of smoking in western society, where adult smoking is generally in decline, they said.
In Britain, the number of smokers has fallen to 27 per cent of the adult population, although the latest figures show that smoking among teenage girls is rising.
James Sargent, professor of paediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School, who presented the research yesterday at the annual meeting of the Paediatric Academic Societies in Boston, Massachusetts, said that although the film industry had said in 1990 it would not to take money from tobacco companies to show their products on screen, the prevalence of smoking in movies was still very high. "Children viewing movies will frequently be exposed to tobacco use as normative and even glamorised behaviours. Parents cannot rely on movie ratings to screen movies for tobacco use," he said.
Co-author Dr Madeline Dalton said: "We are especially concerned about tobacco use by popular stars because we believe this is likely to have the greatest impact on adolescent behaviour."
Amanda Sandford of Ash, the anti-smoking group, said: "Smoking tends to be portrayed in a glamorous way which makes it more attractive to people. If films portrayed the reality of smoking they would have people choking, wheezing and dying of lung cancer."