The Guardian 23 March, 2005

Smoking screen killers stalk their prey

Peter Mac

Smoking on film has risen dramatically in recent years, much of it apparently aimed at increasing the rate of smoking among young people. The NSW Cancer Council is calling on the state government to force cinemas showing films in which the characters smoke to run anti-smoking advertisements.

The Cancer Council has made an anti-smoking ad of its own, after research showed that screening anti-cigarette advertisements halved the risk of teenagers in the audience taking it up.

There was more smoking in films in 2000 than in the 1960s. Smoking appears in 9 out of 10 Hollywood films. In the 13 top-grossing teenage-oriented films, 62 percent had at least one tobacco scene, at an average of four scenes per film.

Since 1998 the incidence of smoking in youth-oriented films has risen by 50 percent, to 82 percent of the total. Some 68 percent of these films associate smoking with positive attributes. Few show the unattractive attributes of the habit.

The tobacco industry in Australia makes more than a million dollars in profit per annum. The sale of cigarettes to underage Australians alone is estimated to be worth $167 million.

Outright cigarette advertising has been banned in Australian cinemas for decades, but the ever-resourceful cigarette industry has tried many ways to get its message across.

In his 1960s book The Hidden Persuaders, American author Vance Packard described research then being carried out into subliminal advertising, which would induce a craving for a product without the subject being aware of it.

The methods included flashing images during a film screening for long enough to register visually, but for a fraction less than the time taken to trigger conscious thought about the image. Researchers found that during cinema program intervals the demand for refreshment products (including cigarettes) which had been shown in this way increased markedly. Viewers were not aware of having been manipulated and did not remember having seen the images.

This was too much even for 1960s US broadcasting authorities, and the practice was banned. Mind you, it took considerably more time for the US Surgeon-General to officially link smoking to lung cancer, and many years more before overt cigarette advertising was banned in Australia.

The tobacco industry had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the whole process, and it indulged in various forms of resistance. One tobacco firm sponsored a long program of scientific research, hoping to disprove the smoking-cancer link. However, the program appears to have proved the opposite, because just prior to completion the program was cancelled and all the research material was destroyed.

The industry has now turned to "product placement", in which the cigarette appears, apparently coincidentally, in the program itself, usually smoked by the hero.

Product placement is not limited to film; it is now a persistent practice on TV, as well. Nor, for that matter, is the idea of screening anti-smoking ads particularly new. Some fifteen years ago a series of ads were developed that showed smoking as the least desirable of habits. (Remember the girl who refused to kiss her boyfriend, saying "Sorry, but it's like kissing an ashtray."?)

These ads had the potential to dramatically reduce the incidence of smoking among young people, but were withdrawn after protests from the tobacco industry.

The NSW government is currently engaged in discussions with a federal committee, concerning a national anti-smoking advertising campaign. But don't hold your breath for the outcome. Only now, some twenty years after smoking was banned in the workplace, is the NSW government taking steps to ban smoking in pubs and clubs. Mind you, that issue is closely related to that of poker machines, the massive state revenue from which would be threatened by a smoking ban.

And indeed, it would be a heroic step indeed for any Australian government to implement a really hard-hitting anti-smoking campaign. After all, in 2002 the Victorian government alone received more than $100 million in cigarette-related revenues.

There is, of course, an alternative to screening anti-smoking ads. That is for the censors to ban all films and TV programs that show anyone smoking. Just listen for the howls of protest from the tobacco lobby if that idea was ever to be implemented!

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