Monday, 30 May 2011

Smoke Screen

As I watch Don Draper take a long draw of his Lucky Strike and gaze thoughtfully out of his high-rise window, I take the time to reflect on the effects that characters smoking on screen have on their viewers. Sure smoking is a foul smelling and short-sighted habit. Lately, however, the attack on smoking in the media has crossed the fuzzy line that differentiates moral enthusiasm from intolerant vilification. In the 21st century we are all well aware of the health implications that arise from smoking, thanks to a plethora of anti-smoking advertisment campaigns. But would a rating system for films and television shows like that in America be beneficial to the protection of youth? Or would too much censorship have an adverse effect on a problem that really calls for better parenting not fewer cigarettes? Furthermore, is it justifiable to censor smoking on screen? Or should it be left to the public to make bad choices for themselves?

Media plays a role in influencing society’s values and belief systems (Sternberg, 2011a). This is somewhat relative to the criticisms received by the AMC series Mad Men that has been accused of glamorizing smoking, which in turn is said to encourage viewers to smoke. The show depicts an assortment of beautiful people constantly lighting up in a time where cigarette smoke was only just being found to be harmful.
However the shows’ satirical view of the 1960’s Madison Avenue ad agency where heavy drinking and smoking is the norm, sexism and adultery are rife, and homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic comments are exchanged openly, is in itself a warning to seeing the past in too favourable light. This therefore suggests that although the characters do engage in what is viewed as undesirable behaviour by the anti-smoking groups, the show does not in anyway condone smoking, in fact they subtly ridicule such behaviours making a conscious effort to create awareness amongst viewers of the dangers of excessive smoking by playing up the obvious differences in attitudes from the 1960’s to today. This is evident in the pilot episode where Lucky Strike comes to Sterling Cooper looking for a new ad campaign in the wake of Readers Digest reporting that smoking leads to a variety of health issues. The idea of which is dismissed in a hearty laugh followed by an even heartier cough.
Characters smoking can communicate many things as suggested by James Cameron in this interview. Smoking may be used by the director to imply the character is passionate about the small things in life, It can mean that the character’s life span/ future does not matter, it can mean that the character values stylishness over health, or that the character does anything to fit in. Because anti-smoking groups have a short sighted negative view on smoking, that does not acknowledge the ability of smoking to communicate different character traits, it is therefore possible to suggest that anti smoking groups only want to consume media that they find agreeable; behaviour defined as selected exposure (Sternberg, 2011b). In their effort to enforce their idealistic view on the public, they could be seen to be marginalising the public’s freedom to consume media in the way it was intended, hindering the public’s choice to decide for themselves on the message being portrayed. This subversion of utilitarianism is hindering the greater good by limiting the power to choose, and forcing smokers on screen and off to conform to someone else’s ethical principles.
It can be argued further that the depiction of smoking on screen tempts those whose judgement is weakest, children. Studies suggest that smoking in movies has a direct link to children taking up smoking. It is easily justifiable then to regulate sales of cigarettes to children, which has been policy for years, but the need for a rating system on films is still inconclusive. Perhaps the strongest criticism of this approach is that it will create a forbidden fruit effect.  As a prominent Canadian tobacco control advocate put it, the attitude of young people to this approach might be “Ooh, this movie has sex, violence AND smoking. COOL!” (Pechmann, 1999). This suggests that education of the dangers of smoking as opposed to the regulation of the film industry may be a better method to preventing teen smoking.
If the glamorization of unhealthy habits is the real issue, why stop with smoking on screen? Obesity can be as dangerous as smoking but no one complains when your favourite movie star eats a chocolate bar, ‘Eating your diabetes sticks! Not around my kids!’ Sure smoking deserves a healthy level of criticism, but sanitizing films at the risk of losing artistic integrity is not the answer.   

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