AVATAR: What’s Wrong with This Picture?

By Guest Blogger – Julia Shrader-Lauinger, California Youth Advocacy Network

Millions of people have seen the movie Avatar in the theatres since it was released in December.  And many of them noticed something strange in the movie’s first half hour:  Sigourney Weaver demanding a cigarette.  Never mind illogical inconsistencies, like it’s the future (don’t we all wish smoking would be obsolete by then?); that she’s a scientist, working in a lab, with lots of million dollar equipment around her (workplace regulations have been in place for ages); or that the humans are somewhere out in a self-contained space station (why add unnecessary contaminants into the ventilation system making the Pandora air breathable, increase risk of burning the whole facility down, or waste precious cargo space shipping cigarettes 5 light-years across the universe?). 

Really, what I do mind is how this ridiculous portrayal of smoking has reached an unwitting audience of millions, essentially giving tobacco companies a vehicle for a giant cigarette commercial.  In fact, Avatar delivers 40 million tobacco impressions for every $100 million raked in at the box office, putting it on track to be worth tens of millions in tobacco advertising.  As of January 27, it’s up to nearly $1.9 billion worldwide (see the latest at www.the-numbers.com), so do the math.   

Why is this even a problem?  Well, the tobacco industry is constantly on the hunt to recruit new customers—they have to, they are killing loyal customers off with their product.  Teens are the best demographic to be replacements, as long as they can be convinced that smoking looks cool, sexy, and is the popular thing to be doing.  And teens like to go to movies.  So it’s a good plan—use smoking in movies to advertise to teens.  This has been happening since the beginning of movies, officially and unofficially (didn’t James Dean look rebelliously hot with a cigarette in Rebel Without a Cause, didn’t Humphrey Bogart look mysterious lighting one up in gray, dreary Casablanca, didn’t Clark Kent’s alter ego look powerful leaping through Marlboro trucks in Superman?)  Over 60% of PG-13 rated movies, and almost 80% of R-rated movies today have smoking in them.  This year, almost all the movies getting major Oscar buzz have smoking.  The scientific community has done numerous studies and the World Health Organization, Center for Disease Control, American Lung Association, and many others agree:  tobacco in movies causes youth to smoke.   Nearly 400,000 kids in the U.S. begin smoking each year because of what they are seeing in movies like Avatar that are marketed at their age group.  At least a third of those will eventually die due to smoking related diseases.

How can this be fixed?  Easily.  And it would have a huge impact on public health for no cost.  First, make it more difficult for youth to see an adult rated movie with adult activities. Rate movies with tobacco-use in them ‘R’, unless the movie also clearly portrays the consequences of that use or it is necessary to depict a historical figure.  The Motion Pictures Association of America, which represents the six major studios, already rates movies according to their content, and this doesn’t have to be any different.  Second, tell the audience that tobacco-use in movies isn’t a commercial.  Certify that there have been no pay-offs to anyone affiliated with the production of the movie in exchange for the use or display of tobacco in the movie.  This also shouldn’t be difficult to declare publicly at the end of every movie, the Master Settlement Agreement already makes tobacco advertising in movies and TV illegal.  Third, have anti-smoking ads during the previews.  An audience that watches anti-smoking ads before a movie with smoking of any rating is less likely to be influenced by the unconscious messaging during the movie.  Lastly, don’t show those Marlboros!  If there is smoking, in an R-rated movie of course, the audience doesn’t need to know what brand.  This means, no use of a brand name, colors, or logo that is identical or remarkably similar to an existing brand.  It’s not a coincidence that the three brands with the largest presence in movies (Marlboros, Camels, and Newports), are also the brands most used by teen smokers.

Smoking in movies kills in real life.  Learn more at www.cyanonline.org and www.smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu about how you can be involved.


One Comment

  1. Raveen Sharma
    Posted Jul 6, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    I agree that there should be no brands and anti-smoking advertisements. But an “R” rating is pretty extreme, especially if the content is otherwse tame.

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