With anti-smoking drives gaining momentum across the globe, Amina Elbendary investigates the role of the media in perpetuating the habit
The anti-tobacco campaign has succeeded in making smoking an issue on health agendas around the world and laws are being drafted to regulate smoking and curb the influence of giant tobacco companies. As smoking becomes increasingly unpopular in the West, however, the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry is busily promoting itself in markets in the developing world. These issues came to the fore this week as the World Health Organisation (WHO) celebrated its annual No Tobacco Day on 31 May.
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GLAMOROUS REPRESENTATIONS OF A BAD HABIT: (Clockwise from top) potrait by Van Leo of a cabaret entertainer taken in 1945; actress Jala Fahmy puffing away in Kalam Al-Leil; Van Leo portrait of Omar El-Sherif in 1950; Mafia poster; Ahmed El-Sakka sports a cigar
Indeed, smoking rates in the developed world have decreased within the last decade at least in part due to the spread of information about the health hazards of smoking and in response to new requirements for health warnings on cigarette packaging and advertisements. Yet despite the health risks, millions have yet to kick the habit.
What perpetuates smoking's "cool" image? One factor, researchers and campaigners argue, is the use of tobacco products in the media. Films and dramas continue to feature characters who smoke. The American Lung Association estimates that 92 per cent of American films rated PG-13, which urges parental caution for viewers under age 13, show scenes of smoking. According to the WHO, "from 1988-1997, 85 per cent of the top 25 box office Hollywood films dramatised the use of tobacco, the highest rate in half a century." Smoke Free Movies and other anti-smoking campaigns have asserted that despite the health risks and the fact that smoking has been increasingly discouraged in public places, a growing number of people are smoking in films. With restrictions on conventional advertising methods for tobacco, the industry is resorting to "embedded" advertising in media such as movies and television.
Films, anti-tobacco activists argue, and other media are crucial in shaping awareness and behaviour. A study published recently by Dartmouth Medical School found a strong link between exposure to tobacco through films and smoking by adolescents. "It serves only to reinforce smoking as a desirable behaviour and encourages young people to experiment with tobacco products and become addicted," said Dr Ronald David, trustee of the American Medical Association. With US- produced movies dominating the film world, latent messages that encourage smoking are being exported all over the globe.
In Egypt, researchers at the Centre for Development Services (CDS) in conjunction with the WHO have investigated the relationship between smoking in films and the prevalence of smoking among youth. Given the fact that smoking often begins at a young age and that the majority of Egypt's population is under the age of 30, young people are an important target for anti-smoking campaigns.
What makes young men and women take that first puff? The usual suspects are parents who smoke and pressure from peers. Glamorous images of cigarettes themselves are also to blame.
Hisham El-Rouby, programme manager at CDS and the drive behind the study, described the strong role films can play in encouraging young people to smoke. "When you ask a teenager, they initially deny that there is any link between the fact that they smoke and films. But, as we let them speak their minds, the way in which certain scenes [including smoking] have been ingrained in their minds is surprising," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"Last year's hit Mafia contains a scene in which the hero, played by Ahmed El-Saqqa, takes out a cigarette and by some trick sends it flying through the air to land in his mouth perfectly. The kids just love that trick and want to imitate it." Indeed, posters of the film show the protagonist standing by a street light lighting a cigarette. In television dramas such as Hassan Arabisk and Raafat Al-Haggan, lead actors Salah El- Saadani and Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz played positive characters serving their communities. Both were heavy on-screen smokers.
In the US, advertisers may pay filmmakers to use certain goods in films. For example, the lead actor may smoke a particular brand of cigarettes or the lead actress may flaunt a specific brand of jeans. Researchers insist that this product placement continues to occur despite the voluntary ban against cigarette placement imposed by the tobacco industry in the US.
Cigarette product placement may be less prevalent in the Egyptian film industry. However, even if film producers do receive money from tobacco companies, there are no laws in Egypt prohibiting such practices and no efficient ways to monitor them.
Filmmakers have responded to criticism of on-screen smoking by arguing that smoking is part of the artistic integrity of the work and useful for creating realistic scenes. Cigarettes are also a perfect prop for actors. "Many actors have trouble with their hands. Should they put them in their pockets? Should they put them behind their back? Do they have them at their sides? The cigarette answered the question," said actor Kirk Douglas in a recent New York Times article. "You can point with a cigarette. You can tap the ashes into an ashtray and put it out gently in the ashtray or fiercely -- whatever the scene requires." Douglas has become a fervent opponent of smoking in movies and has made at least 50 films in which he avoided smoking. Increasingly, filmmakers are also making an effort to create smoke-free flicks. In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks was given a nervous twitch to occupy his hand in lieu of the offending cigarette.
Researchers conducting the CDS study worked with the Youth Association for Population and Development (YAPD) to interview a sample of 500 young Egyptian men and women from Cairo, Alexandria and Minya about issues related to smoking, particularly the influence of the media. Adolescents often look up to film stars and celebrities and attempt to emulate film characters, the study affirmed. In addition, 100 popular films from different eras of Egyptian cinema were reviewed for the study.
"In films from the 1940s and 1950s, a smoker was someone with high social status. Since most of the directors were educated in the West, they tended to associate smoking with glamour, prestige and progress. Since then, smoking has spread to all classes of society, from the taxi driver to the rich. It no longer connotes high social status," El-Rouby explained. "In fact, during the period following the 1952 Revolution, smoking was associated with characters who were police or security officials."
Smoking scenes reached their zenith in the 1970s. The number of female characters smoking on screen was also high. Whereas in earlier periods smoking was associated with "fallen" women, in the 1960s and 1970s moral taboos concerning women who smoke relaxed, perhaps indicating more egalitarian norms. In the 1980s realist films depicting the struggles of everyday life in Cairo began to emerge and included fewer images of smoking. This was accompanied by a decrease in the number of women smokers in films and a return to moral reservations associated with women who smoke. By the 1990s, movies often portrayed middle-class women smoking in secret.
Eighty-eight per cent of the men questioned in the CDS study said they would refuse to marry a woman who smoked. Eighty per cent of the women in the sample agreed that a woman who smoked was morally reprehensible, and 85 per cent of the men affirmed that smoking was a "manly habit".
"The female characters who smoke in films now are often working women wearing professional suits, not dresses," says El-Rouby. One person interviewed in the study commented, "Smoking is associated with educated women of a certain class."
Smoking is also associated with particular types of male characters. In the 1990s, Egyptian filmmakers often introduced mob leaders by zooming in on a cigar. The message? "Corrupt businessmen and gang leaders smoke cigars. The pipe is reserved for intellectuals and scientists," explained El-Rouby. Unlike cigars and cigarettes, however, the shisha (water-pipe) has been an apparently neutral prop for middle-class characters.
In most films, smoking is either presented in a neutral or positive fashion. "Take Adel Imam, for example, who is quite popular. In many of his films he played the macho tough guy who stands up for the poor underdogs. In most of his fighting scenes, after knocking down a foe, he takes out a cigarette." Thus, smoking can be a sign of power -- and triumph.
El-Rouby's study concludes that in Egyptian cinema smoking is associated with a number of contexts: manhood, power and authority come first, followed by excitement and passion, friendly partying and, finally, thought and creativity.
These types of positive connotations are not limited to Egyptian cinema. In Rebel Without a Cause, the character played by James Dean associated smoking with a kind of rebelliousness that persists in recent films, such as Training Day, in which Denzel Washington's character is shown smoking in an attempt to depict him as cool and edgy. Similarly, Catherine Zeta- Jones's character smokes incessantly in the film Chicago. The message that viewers receive from such scenes is that smoking is sexy and cool, anti-smoking activists argue. In the James Bond series, the lead character, played at various times by George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, often smoked. In 1999, prior to the release of The World is Not Enough, producers announced Bond's adoption of a tobacco-free lifestyle and included a no-smoking sign inside the character's BMW.
In an effort to limit on-screen smoking, groups such as Smoke Free Movies in the US are urging the entertainment industry to adopt a number of measures. These include placing an "R" rating, which requires parents to accompany viewers under age 17, on films that include smoking scenes unless they also portray the consequences. Other measures include running anti-smoking ads before films that contain the use of tobacco, regardless of their rating. If adopted, these guidelines could have an impact on audiences worldwide.
Can similar guidelines be applied to Egyptian movies? Rather than creating regulations for filmmakers, activists in Egypt hope to approach film producers themselves in a more informal manner to promote awareness of the dangers of portraying smoking in films.
They also hope to promote awareness among potential smokers. CDS has prepared a guide for interested NGOs to help spread knowledge about the dangers of smoking in creative ways. In addition, a network of 15 NGOs from Cairo, Alexandria and Minya convened on 31 May to organise a peer education programme to discourage smoking among youth in each of the governorates.