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Thumbs Down for Smoking in Movies

Thumbs Down for Smoking in Movies

SAN FRANCISCO--The movie critics Siskel and Ebert rate good movies with a "thumbs up" sign and bad ones with "thumbs down." Now, the Sacramento-Emigrant Trails Affiliate of the American Lung Association (ALA) is using these symbols to rate movies and TV shows in their portrayal of smoking.

Productions devoid of tobacco usage and advertising and those containing antismoking directives earn a thumbs up, while those depicting active smoking or glimpses of a particular brand of cigarettes or a Joe Camel billboard get a thumbs down.

Oscars, Emmys, and 'Phlemmys'

The Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! program also engages in publicity activities, including the "Hackademy Awards and the Phlemmys." They coincide with the Academy Awards and Emmys and are presented to features in which tobacco is used or advertised. To reward positive films and TV programs that show minimal tobacco use or carry antitobacco messages, the group also awards a "Pink Lung."

In 1996, Pink Lungs went to the television series Frasier and The X-Files, while, ironically, a show in which physicians are the main characters, Chicago Hope, received the Phlemmy.

The 1996 Pink Lung for best movie went to Babe, a family film in which neither the talking animals nor the human actors used tobacco.

Speaking at a panel session at the American Thoracic Society/American Lung Association International Conference, Trisha Gibson, program manager for Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, said that "our main objective is to educate and inform the public, generally, and teenagers, particularly, about tobacco messages that are being aimed at them." Added Curt Mekemson, project consultant: "Our aim is to take action to reduce the glamorization of tobacco use in movies, television, and videos."

When Congress banned cigarette advertising on TV in 1970, tobacco companies turned their attention to other means of attracting customers--and the entertainment industry proved accommodating. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that movie heroes are three times more likely to smoke than Americans in real life.

While major strides have been made in reducing tobacco use among adults, young people have continued to smoke at the same rate for the past decade.

Said Mr. Mekemson: "One of the powerful ways young people receive information on tobacco is through watching movies, TV, and music videos. When you see an advertisement, you know it is an advertisement, but when you see your favorite actor or actress enjoying a smoke, there is no warning about tobacco use, and young people receive the message that tobacco use is okay and desirable."

Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!--a joint project of the Sacramento ALA affiliate, the ALA of Los Angeles County, and the national ALA--is funded by California's Tobacco Health Protection Act of 1988, popularly known as Proposition 99, which placed a tax on tobacco products and raises roughly $80 million a year for prevention efforts.

The project butts up against many obstacles, but the most daunting are the traits and practices already ingrained in the entertainment industry. Directors rely upon set forms: The wealthy person flaunts a cigar; the rebellious teenager lights up a cigarette (smoking under a "No Smoking" sign symbolizes the height of defiance); women bucking the system, as in The First Wives Club, light up cigarettes or cigars. The cigar, in fact, has become the universal symbol of reward.

Program Uses Teenage Reviewers

Using the slogan "Watch What You're Watching!" the project is recruiting young people to become critical viewers. Teenagers conduct evaluations of movies, videos, and TV shows using a guide that weights and quantifies various infractions (eg, two people smoking is worse than one; a fleeting shot of a tobacco display in a store window rates less than a person lighting up under stress).

Reviewers must be over 15 years of age and have their parents' consent. They are reimbursed for the cost of their movie tickets and video rentals.

The program evaluates more than 130 movies a year. In 1995, 23% of movies reviewed had no tobacco in evidence; 26% had 1 to 10 incidents; 23% had 11 to 14 incidents; 18% had 25 to 49 incidents; and 11% had more than 50 incidents.

Interestingly, while only 3% of the US population smokes cigars, 52% of movies showed people smoking cigars. In 82% of movies displaying tobacco use, the user was the lead and/or supporting actor.

Movies displayed about five times as much tobacco use as TV. However, women smoked more on TV than in movies. Of 238 TV episodes evaluated, 202 (85%) had no tobacco use. In episodes including tobacco, 67% had cigarette use, 42% cigar use, and 3% pipe use.

The program also encourages teens to write or e-mail key people in the entertainment industry to express their concern over how tobacco is portrayed on the screen. "Our aim is to raise the level of awareness," Mr. Mekemson said. "We have become a loud, if not the main, voice telling the world what is happening in movies and TV."

The ultimate goal is to convince the entertainment industry that it is to their advantage, and the benefit of the public, to eliminate the glorification of tobacco in their productions.

 
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