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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Smoking Films

Bruce Saunders

Web-only article from "Tobacco" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (4)

Two recent films on smoking, The Insider (1999) and Thank You for Smoking (2005), may not cause you to stop smoking, but they’ll certainly make you think about the forces that contribute to your habit.

BC government not the only one to seriously tackle ‘Tobacco’

The Insider is a dramatic presentation of the true story of a tobacco-company researcher who knows his product is dangerous and addictive. The stuff of present-day lawsuits against the tobacco industry, the film shows us the cynical and malicious work the tobacco companies have done to make cigarettes more addictive and even lethal.

The researcher is a highly moral person who realizes the damage and deceit that he is party to if he keeps quiet. His value system also makes breaking an industry-standard confidentiality agreement a tough choice. He is caught between exposing the damning evidence he holds and forfeiting coverage of expensive medical care his child needs. It becomes a very high-stakes game, which costs the protagonist his career, breaks up his family, and may even cost him his life (he receives death threats by e-mail and finds bullets in his mailbox).

The Insider was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Director. It was gratifying to see this produced-in-America film, which so deeply exposes one of its largest industry’s darkest secret, being held up for the highest honours in the North American film industry. ‘Hollywood’ is arguably the most powerful cultural influence in the world. But the end of ‘Big Tobacco’?1 No way!

A swing with the other fist—satirical comedy

The satiric Thank You for Smoking takes a swing with the other fist—comedy. The ‘hero’ of the film is chief spokesman for Big Tobacco Nick Naylor, who makes his living defending the rights of smokers and cigarette makers in today’s “neo-puritanical” society. He’s a lobbyist, who is really good at his job.

It’s a game to Naylor, as it is to his buddies who similarly relish selling the world’s citizens on policies and wars and ideas they shouldn’t buy. In their weekly power lunches, they fondly refer to themselves as the “MOD squad”(merchants of death).They vie to keep their products in a good light, or at least to give their clients—the corporations behind guns, alcohol and tobacco—a chance to capitalize on that grey area of doubt. Even when talking to his kid’s class at school, Naylor responds to one child’s comment that his mom says smoking is bad by asking if her mom is a doctor. No? Well, what can she know?

One of the turning points of the script comes when a senator from Nebraska crusades for “poison” warning images on cigarette packs, aiming primarily at youth. Naylor argues persuasively against this, citing the role of parents, not ads, as paramount in helping youth frame their choices.

It’s all about the culture of spin. In a news program, going head-to-head with the senator from the Great Cheese State, Naylor turns the tables with an accusation that Vermont’s cheese is causing greater trouble to Americans’ health with its cholesterol. Then there’s the ‘smoke screen’ of marketing tobacco products as “mild” or “light” or “filter tips” to create a sense of less risk. And let’s not forget the constant barrage of media images featuring fun and athletic people sharing cigarettes, connecting the product with good health.

Yes, Naylor creates just enough doubt to keep people from changing the bad habits they love.

Why do we still smoke? Films provide clues . . .

For a health class 40 years ago, I filled a scribbler with clippings from the newspapers exposing the dangers of tobacco smoke. The knowledge is there and has been for half a lifetime—just like the information we’ve had for so long about global warming or the benefits of exercise. But we tend to ignore the downside of habits we don’t want to change.

We in Canada have poison labels on our cigarette packs. I picked up a dozen or so off the street recently. The labels warn that you’ll kill your kids with second-hand smoke; that you’re likely to have erectile dysfunction or get cancer of the mouth, throat and lungs; that your gums will look like the photos of horribly diseased mouths shown on every pack you buy in Canada. And, still, people smoke on.

Why do we still smoke? Thank You for Smoking shows that part of the conspiracy is to make smoking look ‘cool.’ Product placement in movies was—and is—huge. Movie stars blowing smoke in each other’s faces while engaged in appealing “business”2 sparks behaviour trends that we can adopt as readily as we do fashions trends.

These days, at least we can watch movies and eat and work in smoke-free environments. But to get a sense of the pervasiveness of smoking in the ‘good old days,’ check out the wonderful and authentic McCarthy-era drama, Good Night and Good Luck (2005). Beautifully filmed in black and white, almost every shot has a tendril or a blast of smoke passing through it.

Like most bad habits, smoking feels good, at least in the short term. And, like most habits, it’s easy enough get yourself hooked, especially if you don’t see it coming. Many people who were treated in psychiatric wards in the past were hooked by their nurses and doctors. It was something for patients to do; something to relieve the tedium and settle nerves on the wards. A common scene from archival films, set in ‘mental institutions’ where cigarettes are popped into the mouths of lined-up patients and lit down the row with a continuously burning lighter, is vividly ‘archived’ in my own memory bank.

Although tobacco companies insist, with the help of spin doctors, that they are just providing a product that is legal and that people want, we all need to be aware of how we’re being manipulated by information and images, including in movies. The Insider and Thank You for Smoking, however, are excellent exposés, and both are entertaining to boot.

About the author
Bruce is the force behind the 14-year Movie Monday film event and the Reel Madness Film Festival in Victoria. His bipolar condition has twice hospitalized him in the Eric Martin Pavilion at Royal Jubilee Hospital, which houses the 100-seat Movie Monday theatre. Bruce is also a landscape maintenance gardener
  1. Big Tobacco is a nickname applied to the largest US companies with a major stake in tobacco consumption.

  2. In theatre—on stage or in film—“business” refers to small actions or incidental activity an actor performs for dramatic effect.


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