How Cigarettes Dominated Old Hollywood Films – And Why They Stopped

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Cigarette smoking is still widely promoted in popular media, even though cigarettes are the leading cause of lung cancer. Granted the numbers may have decreased in recent years, but the use of cigarettes is still prominent in film and television today. The cigarette and tobacco industry has a long history of product placement campaigns with Hollywood studios. A ban on broadcast advertising of smoking and tobacco products in the 1970s caused an immediate decrease in smoking onscreen, so tobacco companies turned to major movie studios in the 1980s for quick product placement. As such, even with the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement and other public safety initiatives in place, realistic — and often unsponsored — depictions of smoking continue to be prevalent onscreen. Below, we’ll explore the popularity of cigarettes in Old Hollywood and how and why they have faced a decline:

Cigarettes and Old Hollywood

Since the birth of movies for entertainment, tobacco companies have embraced media as a new avenue for advertising their products. From the late 1930s through the 1940s, two of the three top adult movie stars promoted cigarettes by smoking on screen. In one year, tobacco companies even agreed to pay movie stars at least $3.3 million for their advertising services—a considerable amount for the time. Films became a better advertising space for tobacco companies because film viewers were mainly unaware of any sponsor involvement in product placements and cigarette use. As far as audiences are concerned, cigarettes in films are simply part of the story and narrative instead of a blatant advertisement.

Tobacco companies didn’t only pay for their products to be shown onscreen. They also supplied cigarettes to production teams. Philip Morris supplied cigarettes to movie sets in the late 1980s, while American Tobacco supplied cigarettes worth more than $5,000 wholesale to 1984’s action comedy film Beverly Hills Cop . At the same time, tobacco companies customarily worked around contracts where Hollywood agents forbade product placement in movies targeted at young audiences. Despite contract clauses, 30% of films Philip Morris supplied in the 1980s were rated G, PG, or PG-13. More than 40% of movies that American Tobacco provided were also youth-rated — half of them rated PG. 

This practice seemingly carried over to the 90s and modern times, as highlighted in our previous post on Home Alone‘s fake movie. In “Angels with Filthy Souls,” Home Alone‘s Kevin is exposed to gangsters and their violence and misogyny. To fuel the film-within-a-film’s machismo, one of the gangsters smokes… a cigarette. While it may seem trivial, this portrayal of smoking in youth-rated family films can be deemed suggestive and influence its viewers.

Cigarettes in film: Out of fashion 

However, despite all the prominence, onscreen cigarettes and smoking seem to be on a downward slope. Based on insights from Truth Initiative, since 2002, the annual number of movies depicting tobacco has been on a steady decline. The number of films with any tobacco decreased from 69 out of 150 (46%) in 2018 to 27 out of 71 (38%) in 2020 — a 61% decrease. Meanwhile, tobacco imagery in top movies decreased from 3,656 in 2019 to 986 in 2020.

This may be due to a shift in the public’s perception of smoking. Today, tobacco companies are investing in the smoking cessation sector to cater to a demographic that no longer wants to smoke. Next-generation smoking cessation products are on-trend among most adults, as there is a desire to quit cigarettes but manage nicotine withdrawals. One of the most widespread products being used is the nicotine pouch. VELO nicotine pouches have become relatively popular on Prilla because they offer users a smoke- and tobacco-free experience in a range of flavors — from mint to coffee — while providing microdoses of nicotine to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.

Similarly, other smoking cessation products such as the nicotine patches from Johnson and Johnson, one of the biggest brands worldwide, remain popular and accessible through online deliveries and direct-to-consumer e-commerce channels. This aligns with the increase in several anti-smoking awareness initiatives from governments and other organizations. Additionally, these smoking cessation products may be more difficult to seamlessly insert into film and television, perhaps severing the relationship between Hollywood and the tobacco industry for good.

About Pitfall Gary 127 Articles
Just your average Gen X'er. Born in the 70s and raised in the Decade of Decadence! I rode my bike without a helmet and was home when the street lights came on. I love to reminisce about the good ol' days; Movies, TV, music, if it happened in my childhood I'll share it with you.

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