Dusty Nix

Smoking on screen: Fundamental changes apply as time goes by

FILE - In this April 21, 2015, file photo, a patron smokes a cigarette inside a bar in New Orleans.
FILE - In this April 21, 2015, file photo, a patron smokes a cigarette inside a bar in New Orleans. AP Photo

Humphrey Bogart filmed a lot of iconic smoking scenes in a lot of iconic movies. Sitting in a darkened Rick’s Café in “Casablanca,” a cigarette in one hand and a glass of liquor in the other: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Lighting leading lady (on screen and later in marriage) Lauren Bacall’s cigarette in their first film together, Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not.” Smoke wafting up while he trades innuendo-laced barbs with femme fatale Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon.”

These were supposed to be sultry, sophisticated and seductive scenes at the time, and they no doubt were.

Humphrey Bogart died of esophageal cancer at 57, weighing 80 pounds.

In an age when information is so omnipresent you can’t get away from it, there can’t be anybody left in the developed world who doesn’t know smoking is deadly. If you decide to roll the dice, it’s your choice.

It was my choice for more than 20 years; it’s been my choice not to for more than 20 years.

After this long, it probably won’t be something smoking-related that’s going to take me out. But I still never have a chest X-ray — the last one was in February — without a little silent prayer that I’ve dodged one of those old Marlboro bullets yet again.

I bring this up because Georgia Health News, one of my regular go-to sources for solid information on the science, economics and politics of medical care, reported this past summer on a survey by the Atlanta-based CDC that showed an increase in tobacco use in movies, and public health people are concerned.

So am I. But my concern is ambivalent; it goes in not necessarily equal but decidedly opposite directions.

I’m definitely concerned if movie characters who smoke on screen are resulting in more people, especially young people, smoking off screen.

I’m also concerned that debates about fictional behavior, which sometimes have a Nanny State lack of context and perspective about them, can distort the bigger picture.

That might be unfair in this instance, or it might not.

Are fictional images seductive? Absolutely. I was a James Bond junkie (more the Ian Fleming novels than the movies, especially after Sean Connery — I hated Roger Moore), and the descriptions of .007 inhaling one of his special-order Turkish-blend cigarettes made smoking seem really cool. Bond smoked 60 of these things a day, drank like a fish, and still stayed in kickass condition for a dozen books. (That’s called fiction.)

Fleming, Bond’s creator, was also a heavy smoker and drinker, and died of heart disease at 56. (That’s called reality.)

The CDC report notes that individual occurrences of tobacco use in top-grossing movies increased 72 percent from 2010 to 2016. More significant, there was a 43 percent jump in PG-13 movies. Those, obviously, are not statistically negligible numbers.

But what were the movies, who were the characters, what were the settings, in what eras were they set, and in what moral, cultural and social contexts was the smoking depicted?

Those things matter. We inevitably get into these tangled and ultimately unresolvable debates about whether or not fiction “glorifies” certain behaviors, and that’s where the statistics start to break down.

One of the most hilarious episodes of “Frasier” is the one in which Frasier Crane’s harpy-from-Hell agent Bebe Glazer has to stop smoking before she can marry the station’s geriatric billionaire owner “Big Willie.” I can’t say how many “individual occurrences” of tobacco use there are, but Bebe gets just about everybody in the cast addicted to cigarettes before the half-hour episode is over, and I can’t imagine anybody wanting to take up the habit after watching it.

I was, and am, such a passionate “Sopranos” junkie, by the way, that my family bought me the whole series on DVD as a Christmas present a few years ago. I’ve watched every episode at least twice, and thus far my urge to shoot, garotte, bludgeon or decapitate somebody has been held in check.

If it sounds like I’m making light of the issue, I’m not. Almost a half-million preventable deaths a year are no joke. And the Surgeon General’s conclusion that there is a correlation between the smoking young people see in movies and their chances of taking up smoking is sobering.

But even as these smoking scenes have increased, smoking in general, especially among young people, has been on the decline, which suggests that they’re getting input from other things besides smokers on the screen.

There’s a lot of cigarette smoking in “Mad Men” because there was a lot of cigarette smoking in the era, and by the kinds of people, depicted in “Mad Men.” At series’ end, Betty Draper is dying of lung cancer.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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