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Am I wrong to smoke on primetime TV?

August 28, 2011

Humphry Bogart - Wikimedia Commons

Smoking in movies subsidised by the government undermines efforts by health authorities to combat nicotine addiction in the young. That’s the verdict of new research published by Imperial College’s School of Public Health.

The paper estimates that between 2003 and 2009, British tax credits of £338 went to US films that featured cigarette use. This is in spite of an earlier World Health Organisation study which showed that young people who are heavily exposed to tobacco smoking in films are about three times more likely to begin smoking than those less exposed.

The authors argue that such films should receive an adult rating and be denied public funding as an incentive to comply with public health initiatives.

Anti-smoking lobbyists have been strongly supportive. Martin Dockrell, Director of Research at Action on Smoking and Health, said: “The research is clear: the more a young person sees smoking in films the more likely they are to try smoking themselves.”

The release of this paper raises interesting issues for me right now, which I’m happy to share. As well as being a science communicator and technology journalist intern, I am also a professional actor. Over the summer, I’ve been filming a medical TV drama series set in 1950s London. The series is destined for peak-time transmission on British television in 2012. I play a general practitioner in an inner-city surgery.

This in itself is nothing remarkable. I sweep through the early years of the National Health Service with a smart leather bag, white coat and stethoscope. My part is structurally important, but peripheral to the main female storylines.

What is relevant is one particular character detail.

My doctor smokes like a chimney.

If the findings of the Imperial study are relevant to the millions of young British who watch mainstream films, then they must also be relevant to the several million people who tune in to peak-time television drama – much of it government subsidised.

So why – despite my own personal aversion to cigarettes – have I ended up with a fag in my mouth on television? Is my portrayal contributing in some small way to the corruption of public health? Am I – in this sense – a science anti-communicator?

I welcome comment on this, as I feel it’s an important issue that raises deeper ethical concerns about personal responsibility and artistic license

First, a little background context. Nobody in the production impelled me to smoke – although I have been required by contract to smoke for other jobs. If I’d raised an objection to smoking, I’m certain they would have accepted it. I haven’t named the programme or the producers, because it isn’t relevant to the issues. These issues are true for any production on TV that features smoking – and many do. I personally hate cigarettes, and haven’t touched one off-set for years.

So why did I smoke here? Two things, really. It felt right for the character, and it was an absolutely authentic period detail.

In the UK during the fifties, smoking was utterly commonplace. Roughly 60% of men and just over 40% of women smoked. An astonishing 10 cigarettes on average were consumed by each adult male per day (details here).

This included many GPs. A fascinating British Medical Journal study observed the effects of smoking on doctors over a fifty year period from 1951. 34,439 British doctors – all smokers – took part in the research. And some doctors still smoke, despite known risks.

So it was plausible for my character to smoke. But was it right for him to do so?

I felt that my doctor could show a strong period contrast by smoking as a medical man. It immediately marked the relative ignorance of the age. But in a personal way, smoking also helped signify his compulsions. His drive, his stresses.

So much for art. I’m not really dealing with the ethical issue highlighted in the Imperial study. Just because something is authentic, and ‘feels right’, should it be on camera? After all, in a drama about the Vikings, would it be acceptable to feature ‘historically-authentic’ rape scenes?

One can surely argue that there is a limit to what the TV should show, if it’s harmful to young minds. And in terms of TV violence this is already accepted. British television is hugely less violent than it was in the seventies – whatever the common perception may be. Strict rules apply to what is permitted. A good example is knives. Interestingly, you are far more likely to see a gun fight than a knife fight on peak time television. Why? Because knives are in every youth’s kitchen – guns aren’t.

Society has therefore accepted that certain artistic license risks too much of the public good – and so limits its effects. But where should we draw the line?

Ethical arguments have raged for years about the supposed harm in the portrayal of sex, profanity, drugs, crime and violence in TV and film. Many of the objections to censorship centre on the ‘nanny state’ and ideas of personal responsibility.

Is TV responsible for the personal behaviour and addiction of everybody who watches it? Is the young public simply a passive sponge, soaking up every image of a smoker, and automatically succumbing to cigarette addiction? Whatever happened to self-control? Do we now delegate all of our personal health responsibilities to legislators?

And so we come back to the Imperial study. Are the authors right to suggest that Hollywood should be penalised for showing smoking in its movies? And by association – is my doctor wrong to smoke?

Should science – however well-meaning – be able to force people to watch only what is deemed good for them?

If you care, do let me know. I have an open mind, and much to gain. At the very least, I could leave work not smelling like an old ashtray.



Millett, C., Polansky, J.R. & Glantz, S.A. (2011). Government Inaction on Ratings and Government Subsidies to the US Film Industry Help Promote Youth Smoking. PLoS Medicine, 8(8), p.e1001077. [Online] Available from: [Accessed August 28, 2011].

Doll, R. (2004). Mortality in relation to smoking: 50 years’ observations on male British doctors. BMJ, 328(7455), p.1519-0. [Online] Available from: [Accessed August 28, 2011].

6 Comments leave one →
  1. mefinx permalink
    February 3, 2012 3:20 pm

    See TV Tropes, “Do Not Do This Cool Thing…”

    (OMG. I’ve just realised who you are! No wonder you picked up my blog!)

    Surely one has to differentiate between the times when it’s simply realistic, IC and in period for a character to light up, and when it’s obviously being presented as alluring? I’d hope it would be picked up by younger viewers and lead to an interesting conversation. And let’s try to avoid selective puritanism. If we can show a woman with a revolting syphilitic lesion before the watershed, but not a doctor with a fag, that says something a bit disturbing about out society.

    (I remember watching Torchwood with my early-teenage daughter, who was completely unfazed by a character’s lesbianism but exclaimed in horror “Ugh, she’s smoking!”)

    Nobody hates smoking more than me. My mum and my uncle both died as a direct result of it before their time. However, your smoking doctor feels right to me, mainly for the reasons you describe. He works, literally, day and night in the book. He’s heroic. In fact, having read the book, you could argue that everybody ought to be smoking (with the possible exception of the nuns!)

    It’s one of THE big problems with period drama, isn’t it? I remember struggling with the sight of David Tennant as Jimmy Murphy sitting on the steps sobbing his guts out and chain-smoking, and it wasn’t the sobbing that bothered me most. But it was absolutely spot-on in context of the period and his emotional state. It’s a massive problem, particularly when kids might me watching (I still can’t imagine Jackie Tyler without a fag in her hand, and now I really must shut up with the DW references). Of course we sanitize period drama in all kinds of ways. Everybody looks too clean, and well fed. Are we after authenticity or nostalgia? Interesting point.

    One of the many things I liked about Mad Men was it blew away that whole taboo and had everyone smoking like chimneys, including a doctor doing an internal exam in the first episode. A tough decision, and the right one, I think.

  2. JessChuckNorris permalink
    March 26, 2013 8:13 pm

    Authenticity comes at a price. The question is, is it worth paying?

    Being from America, a recently graduated film student, and someone with what I believe are pretty strong morals, having shows like ‘Pretty Little Liars’, ‘The Secret Life of An American Teenager’, any and all crime dramas, and some of the other pieces of work on the air during peak hours I have thought about that a lot.

    Does making the character feel whole and true make it worth it when the message may not be so pleasing.

    A debate I participated in during one of my lectures in college encompassed this and other topics, I was however the only person in the room who took offense to the things that were on the air at the time. What would happen if kids saw these things? Is it our job to monitor what they watch? Can we really even succeed in doing so with all the advances in making TV and Movies readily available to anyone with the click of a mouse and the ability to check off a box that certifies they are over 18?

    It seems impossible to do that. Do we even want to? It seems like censoring. Is it?

    I have gone round and round in circles with myself on this. Smoking on screen for fullness/authenticity of character and story seems just the tip of the iceberg of so much more. Are we ready to hit it head on and deal with the consequences?

    I feel like I have just confused myself more and created more questions than answers.

    So this is not helpful.

    But glad I am not the only one out there thinking it, and debating with myself about it.

  3. November 25, 2013 9:27 pm

    having been a lifelong non-smoker who cant even stand the smell of cigarettes and also as a daughter who cared for and nursed her mother until she died of lung cancer i would say a resounding NO.
    Since it has been found to be harmful to our health then i dont see why anyone would choose to still smoke. You say you hate them and havent smoked for years so why for the sake of a small amount of historical accuracy would you take it up again and risk your health especially as the part does not call for it. You can take some details a little too far.
    Having now seen the programme you are referring to I dont think it was a necessity, in fact it makes me dislike the character more.
    As for influencing others young or old to take it up I dont believe it does. People will always do what they want in the end no matter what they see or hear on tv, its just an easy get our clause to say they saw it there first.
    take care of your health, you are a talented young man

  4. December 3, 2013 3:01 am

    Hello Stephen,
    I’m a huge fan of Call the Midwife (like so many other people), and it’s interesting that you have raised the topic of smoking in period TV or film productions. When I saw Dr. Turner smoking on the show, I immediately had the reaction I have to most British productions that feature characters smoking. (I am from Canada, BTW, but love and watch a great deal of British drama). My reaction is: I wish productions would not show characters smoking unless truly, irrevocably necessary for the story. Because so much British drama is set in a historical period, it inevitably follows that there is smoking on almost every show that I watch. The Hours, old episodes of Poirot, Call the Midwife — you name it. This extends to modern shows too, such as Rev and various gritty detective dramas.

    I don’t care that smoking may be authentic for a particular era. There are many things that aren’t shown in dramatic productions for tasteful reasons — such as people using toilets or picking their nose or (sometimes) having overly gratuitous sex. We rightly recoil from such displays. I think smoking should be added to the list. I find it distasteful to watch characters (even as delightful as Dr. Turner) smoking and I wonder why it’s necessary to show this. There are other ways to show his tiredness, stress, or complete dedication to his work. To me, smoking is an easy way out which most dramas should attempt to rise above.

    Thanks for allowing me to provide an opinion!

  5. Karen V. permalink
    March 6, 2014 5:24 am

    Even if it’s true that a great deal of exposure to smoking on-screen has a bad influence on children, that doesn’t mean that every last bit of smoking needs to be censored from every programme — only that it should be shown more sparingly than it tends to be. I think it should be up to the artists to make a thoughtful decision on whether to include smoking as part of characterization, and it seems as if your choice, Mr McGann, was very thoughtfully made. I do sometimes wonder, though, whether creators of programmes realise that some viewers will feel such revulsion to the smoking as to feel put off by the character. I’m one of those viewers. Smoking makes it harder for me to feel empathy for a character, and it certainly makes a good-looking male character much less attractive. (I’ve never understood why some people find smoking sexy. Stench, lung disease, heart disease, coughing up mucus, shortened life span — when do we get to the sexy part?) It took me quite a while to appreciate the (not inconsiderable) charms of Dr Turner, because in real life, I wouldn’t want to get within 10 feet of the odor of cigarettes, no matter how great the bloke is otherwise. Though you can’t smell it when it’s just on the telly, there’s an instinctive reaction of revulsion. “Call the Midwife” seems to be cutting down the smoking as the doctor’s life is improving (so I think — I haven’t started on series 3 yet), and that makes the character and his scenes much more enjoyable for me to watch.

    In sum, I think the people who create a character — the writers and the actor — should do what they think best for the character. If they make thoughtful choices, it will probably hold the rate of on-screen smoking down to a level that won’t do damage to young minds. But I sometimes suspect that they don’t realise that many viewers will take smoking not just as a sign of stress, ignorance, or the culture of the times, but as something that distracts from the rest of the programme and pushes us away from the character in a strong, visceral way. If the artists take all this into consideration and still feel that it’s worthwhile to include smoking as part of characterization, then I think they should do it.

  6. April 28, 2016 5:22 pm

    There is a fundamental difference between showing smoking on-screen to give a story or a character or a setting authenticity, and having the behaviour written into scripts in exchange for funding from tobacco companies.

    Many people used to smoke. Having characters who smoke is an authentic period detail. In Dr. Turner’s case, I believe the smoking, the leanness, the often exhausted body language and the intensity all contribute to the viewers’ understanding of him as a man who pushes himself unbearably to care for his patients at a great cost to himself. That makes him real. It also helps us understand why the midwives trust him and Shelagh fell in love with him.

    I do think having characters smoke should be considered long and carefully by those who craft stories for the screen. I also think drug use, alcohol use, risky sexual behaviour, bad driving practises, bullying, violence and a host of other behaviours should be considered carefully. But since fictional stories work best when they show reality, we cannot pasteurize out all the negative things people do.

    I am very glad to know you don’t smoke in real life, however! If you smoked the way Dr. Turner does, I would worry for you!

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