Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

18 cert for smoking in movies?

Some report by the Thorax, organ of the British Thoracic Society, has suggested that all films depicting smoking should be given an 18 cert. What a load of garbage. At the risk of sounding like Richard Littlejohn, this is the …

Fri, Sep 23, 2011, 21:27


Some report by the Thorax, organ of the British Thoracic Society, has suggested that all films depicting smoking should be given an 18 cert. What a load of garbage. At the risk of sounding like Richard Littlejohn, this is the sort of nonsense that tempts me to reach immediately for an untipped Craven A. Sod that. I’m going to spend the weekend watching endless film noir while injecting tar directly into my biggest, most throbby vein.

No more M Hulot for you, kiddies.

Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. Of course, smoking is appallingly bad for your health. Of course, glamorous depictions of the habit have, in the past, lured youths towards the fags and cigars. Of course, any parent catching a child lighting up should send said youth immediately to the wood shed with no spaghetti hoops.

But there comes a point when understandable caution gets in the way of artistic freedom. The obvious problem is that kids would now be prohibited from witnessing many films in the area of social realism. Under these laws, any child would be banned (in theory) from watching films such as Distant Voices, Still Lives, Kes or Bicycle Thieves. I admit that Terrence Davies, Ken Loach and Vittorio de Sica are rarely at the top of the average youth’s hit parade. But, if any contemporary version of those films arrived in cinemas, you would surely wish your budding cinephile to get a glimpse of the thing. Wouldn’t you?

But there’s more to it than that. As Ben Child in the Guardian points out, such a regulation would have either prohibited Peter Jackson from allowing Gandalf his pipe or required the censor to plaster an 18 cert on all three Lord of the Rings pictures. Aside from anything else, it seems fantastic to assume that many Tolkien fans take up clay pipes after a Rings marathon. (Mind you, if my memory serves me, the first generation of Middle-earth enthusiasts in the 1960s were disproportionately disposed towards certain, more exotic smoking materials.)

Not being Ben Goldacre, I am not in a position to pull apart the reliability of the BTS’s study, but it is awfully hard to take the following statement seriously: “Their study of more than 5,000 adolescents found that 15-year-olds who saw the most films showing actors smoking were 73% more likely to have tried it than those who had seen the fewest.” Does one thing necessarily follow from the other. Are the kids boasting? I am immediately reminded of those notoriously unreliable studies of the effects of so-called video nasties on young people. When more sober scientists examined the results they discovered that the kids were making up much of the material they had allegedly seen.

But that’s not the point. Even if the study does hold up, I would still maintain that the notion of an 18-cert for all puffing movies is utterly absurd. Smoking is, for good or ill (mostly ill obviously), a part of life (and death). To shuffle it into the corner entirely would be to further sanitise an art form that, to remain strong, must feel able to show people — and wizards — as they are. The claim, made by Dr Andrea Waylen, that “smoking depictions in films are not consistent with the ban on smoking in public places in the UK” is completely preposterous. The main reason for the ban was to allow non-smokers to breath freely, unaffected by other people’s carcinogenic effusions. Nobody is going to get emphysema from watching Now Voyager.

One thinks of a 2004 campaign — successful sadly — by the NAACP to stop the fine Silent Movie Theater in LA from screening The Birth of a Nation. Yes, D W Griffith’s film is appallingly, unforgivably racist. But that does not — you might add an “alas” here — stop it from being one of the most significant in cinema history. The case is very different. But it also shows campaigners allowing their prime concerns to inhibit important freedoms.

Of course, film-makers should be responsible in this area. It is, perhaps, best that they don’t encourage heroic figures to smoke in films aimed at younger audiences. It would be nice if they avoided suggesting that smoking makes you sexier. As it happens, Hollywood has been drifting in this direction for ages. In mainstream films smoking is almost always seen as a sign of weakness, unreliability, insanity or unspeakable villainy. But the notion of legislating to enforce those conventions is utterly nuts.

Anyway, as I say, don’t smoke. It’ll kill you in the end. That is all.