In 2022 tobacco incidents have been appearing in a number of top-grossing period films, set as recently as the 1990s and going back to the 1800s. Films set in the 1950s were particularly rife with tobacco, with thriller The Outfit including 73 tobacco incidents, thriller Don’t Worry Darling including 41 tobacco incidents, and biographical drama Till including 32 tobacco incidents. Other offenders set in the past included the Christian Western romance Redeeming Love set in the 1800s with 33 tobacco incidents, slasher Pearl set during World War I (1918) with 18 tobacco incidents, and horror comedy Studio 666 set in the early 1990s with 6 tobacco incidents.
Members of the film industry have suggested the inclusion of tobacco in films is important for historical accuracy. In a 2022 article in the Sydney Morning Herald novelist and screenwriter John Collee was quoted saying “Smoking was so widespread in the 20th century that it would be inauthentic not to show it in a drama set in that period.” The article also suggests that the heavy smoking in popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit could be “plausibly excused” because 45% of Americans smoked in 1945. Collee is also quoted in the article saying “unlike a public health announcement, a drama is essentially non-didactic. To a certain extent, you have to trust your audience to discriminate between a good thing and a bad thing.”
Attitudes from members of the film industry suggesting that tobacco is needed in films for historical accuracy echo recent examples of actors wanting to include smoking in films to stay true to characters’ behavior, such as Colin Farrell pushing for the Penguin to smoke in The Batman and Jacob Elordi pushing for his character to smoke in The Kissing Booth to stay true to his character in the book the movie was based on (both films were tobacco free). These attitudes toward tobacco on screens within the film industry are particularly problematic given the well-known link between youth tobacco exposure and smoking (US Surgeon General, 2014) and recent research showing that greater exposure to onscreen tobacco incidents increases odds of vaping initiation (Bennett et al., 2020). While many 2022 period films showing tobacco had an R-rating, R-ratings are increasingly less effective in protecting kids given how many films end up on streaming platforms.
While continuing to see tobacco appear in these 2022 period films is disappointing, there are many examples of successful, top-grossing period films from 2022 that are tobacco free, demonstrating that keeping tobacco out of period films does not harm their performance. For example, period drama Downton Abbey: A New Era and Indian action drama RRR, both set in the 1920s, were tobacco free, as was Agatha Christie’s murder mystery Death on the Nile set in the 1930s. Multiple films set in the 1950s were also tobacco free, including murder mysteries Where the Crawdads Sing and See How They Run. Horror film The Black Phone set in the 1970s, was also tobacco free. In recent months we have also seen HBO's removal of cigarettes from iconic period movie posters displayed on HBO Max.
We celebrate these victories for tobacco free screens. However, the persistent appearance of tobacco in certain period films suggests the need to continue to educate of members of the film industry about the true impact of including tobacco in media and encourage the development and enactment of anti-tobacco policies among content creators in the entertainment industry (for more see Truth’s most recent Nicotine on Demand report).