Am I wrong to smoke on primetime TV?
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].