When cigarettes were first advertised they were promoted as being healthy, touted as a cure for sore throats, coughs and to aid weight loss amongst other ‘benefits’.
Not only were cigarettes promoted as having health benefits, but smoking had an attractive image.
It was seen as manly, strong and dashing to smoke – think Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. While women were seen as sophisticated, fashionable and seductive when holding a cigarette – like Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn.
These images were cultivated by the film industry, with cigarettes used as props. Smoke was also visually interesting. Smoking became part of the script, part of the action itself. An actor would reach for a cigarette deliberately slowly, creating a dramatic pause. The audience would have to wait for an actor on screen to finish their drag before responding to a fundamental question.
Since then, cigarette smoking on the big screen is not as widespread as it once was. Cigarette brands can no long get product placement in films. The Harvard School of Public Health has long been active in pushing for control over smoking in Hollywood, especially in pushing for complete avoidance in youth-related films. As a result, there is a distinct lack of smoking in films such as the Devil Wears Prada which reflects the fashion industry where it might be more common in reality.
The smoking appearances now tend to be a historical representation as in the Mad Men series or films like Frost/Nixon in 2008.
Certainly, cigarette smoking lacks the old glamour and sex appeal in films today, a reflection of the opinion of today’s society. Smoking in films today can often help depict an unhealthy, old, gnarly or rough character, rather than a sex symbol.
The most famous image of this film sees Marlene Dietrich wearing a gentleman’s attire with bow tie and top hat, captivatingly smoking cigarettes with the magnetism that she was so famous for.
The Testament of Dr Mabuse, 1933
In this film noir, smoking is used to add to the sinister undercurrent and sense of mystery.
A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951
This is the film that rose Marlon Brando to fame. Smoking is a part of the obvious sex appeal that Brando excudes. Cigarettes draw attention to the mouth, deliberately creating an overtly sexual tension.
Rebel Without A Cause, 1955
James Dean is rarely seen without a cigarette in this film and he is cool because of it. Dean is exceptionally good-looking, wearing a rebellious red leather jacket that demands attention, while a cigarette hangs nonchalantly from his lips.
The ultimate bad boy, cigarette smoking is depicted as cool in this film – making a lasting impression on rebellious teenagers for generations to come. In films in the 1980s this use of cigarettes for the anti-hero continues with Veronica from Heathers played by Winona Ryder – she smokes and it makes her look cool.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s, 1961
Perhaps one of the most famous props in the film industry, Audrey Hepburn’s chic long black cigarette holder adds to her charm in this film. Hepburn’s elegant movements as she smokes cigarettes adds to her glamour – even creating a comic moment in the film when Holly unknowingly sets a party goers hat alight. Smoking is part of Holly’s very chaotic and vulnerable character.
Grease continues the ‘smoking is cool’ image with the cool kids in school smoking throughout the film including T-Birds – Danny Zuko, Doody, Sonny, Kenickie and Putzie and their girlfriends. The heroine Sandy avoids smoking until she gets a sexy makeover when she smokes a cigarette and iconically stubbs it out with her stiletto.
The 1980s saw tobacco companies paying for product placements in films and even supplying the actors with free cigarettes on a monthly basis. Cigarettes continue to be depicted as rebellious for teenagers in Footloose when Ren played by Kevin Bacon shows his frustration by smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer.
Die Hard, 1988
In the Die Hard films, lone hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) smokes like it is a badge of honour – smoking is not just seen as cool for rebellious teenagers. McClane smokes as the good guy in these films – to highlight his working-class appeal and masculinity.
Smoking then sees a huge decrease from the 1990s and as we get closer to modern day as the dangers of smoking were affirmed.
From 2007 the Motion Picture Association of America began to take smoking in films into account when awarding a rating. For example, The Fantastic Mr Fox is a film that is popular with children, but is rated a PG as Mr Fox smokes cigarettes.
In 2015 Disney announced that it would be banning all smoking from all its movies – including Marvel and Star Wars franchises.
Today we see vaping on the rise on big screen as it reflects a society looking for ways to give up smoking cigarettes. It is now normal to see vaping when you are walking down the street or know someone who vapes. Filmmakers want to create realistic and believable character representation on screen.
The Tourist, 2010
Johnny Depp, always the epitome of cool, plays Frank Tupelo, shown to be a vaper throughout the film. Johnny Depp is also known to be a vaper off screen.
Drive Hard, 2014
John Cusack stars in this film as a retired racer and vaper. Cusack is also known to be an avid vaper off screen.
A Billion Lives, 2016
This documentary film directed by Aaron Biebert explores the projection that The United Nations’ World Health Organization predicts that a billion people will die due to smoking this century. Neither a smoker nor a vapor himself, Biebert was inspired to investigate the role of vape technology as a friend had taken up vaping to quit smoking. Biebert subsequently changed his view on vaping.
With some saying that smoking tobacco on screen is becoming dangerously fashionable again, smoking cigarettes has certainly moved from cultural mainstay to a more marginalised role. Likewise, as vaping gains popularity as people look to give up smoking, cinema will always continue to reflect society and perhaps we will see vaping gaining in popularity with our protagonists in future.