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Activists Urge Hollywood to Cut Back on Smoking in Movies

Public health advocates held protests last week in the United States and 20 other countries over the portrayal of smoking in Hollywood films that reach children and teenagers. The activists say five million people worldwide will die this year from tobacco-related disease, and that Hollywood can help reduce that number.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the public health director for Los Angeles County, says 80 percent of the live-action movies favored by young people portray smoking, and that the images make young viewers more likely to take up the habit.

He says the entertainment industry has done a remarkable job in helping with public health issues like AIDS, breast cancer, and hunger.

"That is why it's so perplexing to us in public health that an industry with such a huge heart continues to ignore a proactive solution that could save tens of thousands of lives every year in the United States, and millions more worldwide," he said.

Dr. Fielding spoke with reporters as a mobile billboard started touring Hollywood, with a message urging that smoking be kept out of youth-rated movies. The so-called International Day of Action was held February 22, in advance of the biggest day of the year in the U.S. movie calendar, Oscar Sunday. That is the day when Hollywood turns out in all its glamor for the annual Academy Awards presentation.

Stan Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, was one of the people behind the U.S. movement to eliminate smoking in public places. And as city after city started imposing restrictions on smoking, he turned his attention to movies.

"About 10 or 12 years ago, I started noticing that there seemed to be a lot more smoking in the movies, and started getting concerned about the problem," he said. "And after several years of going to quiet, behind-the-scenes and totally useless meetings with people in Hollywood, decided to start a public campaign to really put this issue on the public agenda."

As part of the worldwide effort to highlight movie smoking, film screenings are being held in Senegal and Israel in which young people cough each time an on-screen actor lights a cigarette. Young people in Malaysia are meeting with reporters to discuss the smoking issue, and campaigners in India are protesting the prominent display of Marlboro cigarettes in a current Indian movie.

Professor Glantz says Hollywood sets the standard for international films, and notes that more than half of its revenues come from countries outside the United States and Canada. So his organization, called Smokefree Movies Action Network, has helped organize protests and educational events from Algeria to Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

Moviemakers, for their part, bristle at the suggestion that on-screen portrayals promote smoking, just as they question the link between movies and real-life violence or other harmful behavior. Professor Glantz says researchers have shown a conclusive tie between smoking and the movies, and adds that simple steps, such as restricting smoking to adult-only films, would address the issue without censorship.

Payments by cigarette companies for prominent placement in movies, once common in Hollywood, are no longer legal. The researcher questions, however, why so many Hollywood films show people smoking. He says regardless of the reasons, the portrayals are a form of advertising for tobacco companies.

"It's advertising that people don't realize they're being advertised to," he said. "And once people are made aware of it and thinking about it, then it doesn't work for them as well any more."

He says one suggestion adopted by some theater owners in Canada could also help. Theater tickets have an anti-smoking message printed on the back. He adds that on-screen notices before a movie begins can also alert viewers to the dangers of smoking, and says such ads are now being shown in New York State and Vermont.