Like any social revolution cinema plays a key role in bringing something new to the masses.
Johnny Depp taking a drag on his vape in 2010’s The Tourist was the first time the technology had been featured in such a high profile way. The second series of HBO’s hugely successful show True Detective featured vaping. Johns Cusack and Goodman both played characters who vaped in Drive Hard and The Hangover Part III respectively. Zac Efron’s recent films Bad Neighbours and Dirty Grandpa had the star toking on an E-cigarette. In real life we’ve conducted interviews with actors and directors who vaped throughout, filling the press rooms with clouds of vapour – something they would never be able to do with normal cigarettes.
In the last few years The UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies have lobbied the BBFC to take action on scenes of smoking in movies. The BBFC have thus far resisted their call to instantly slap an 18 rating on a film should it contain one scene of smoking. Adam Smith’s recent Trespass Against Us, starring Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson, was thick with cigarette smoke as relief from the daily stress of a criminal life. A vape would have dramatically toned down that rebellious element. A TV show like Mad Men made about today’s self-aware advertising industry would heavily feature vaping no doubt. Even Albert Square’s resident human chimney Dot Cotton was seen taking a puff on an E-cigarette in one episode of EastEnders. Times are changing.
So how are the film and TV industries taking to the change? The link between being dangerous (and therefore cool) and puffing on a cigarette has roots in the noir genre. The echoes of this mean that in Grease, a candy-coloured PG singalong, John Travolta’s Danny Zuko is rarely seen without a half-spent cigarette hanging out of his mouth; witness Emma Stone’s graceful plumes as Grace Faraday in 2013’s Gangster Squad; the defiance on the face of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden in Fight Club as he sucks on his spitty gasper. In each of these films they are nothing more than props, present to underline a character trait. The number of cigarettes puffed was an integral part of Bridget Jones’ daily record.
As vaping becomes ever more mainstream TV and film characters will surely be seen with their E-cigarettes in hand, each one a prop denoting a particular aspect of them. It’s happening already. In this brief moment from Netflix’s gloriously dark White House political drama House of Cards Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) catches her husband Frank (Kevin Spacey) using what she thinks is a cigarette. He responds, ‘It’s a vape,’ and offers her a try explaining it is ‘addiction without consequences’.
Knowing the other things that Frank Underwood is addicted to, it is not a surprise that this scene is set in an unusually cosy domestic setting. His whole world is based on his addiction to power, and at the level he is playing the consequences are very real. This is seen as a safe alternative to his cravings, and so vaping got one of its first mainstream outings.
A further watershed moment occurred in the 572th episode of Springfield’s Finest. With guest appearances from Glenn Close and Carice van Houten (the latter, of course, playing a van Houten – Milhouse’s Dutch cousin), Let’s Go Fly a Coot features several scenes of vaping with this indelible image of Maggie Simpson blowing a vape ring.
Though The Simpsons has relinquished its hold as TV’s funniest half hour it is still one of the most recognisable popular culture titans. Featuring vaping as prominently as it did was indicative of its status in the zeitgeist.
Whether vaping becomes emblematic of a character type, or a shown as a healthier alternative to addiction is hard to say. But we’ll certainly be seeing more of it on our screens.