Smoke screens: vaping in the movies looks less glamorous than smoking in old Hollywood


Another dead end is the murder investigation. Tired and frustrated, the detective leaves the station. She looks halfway, forcefully sucking a vape and expelling puffs of smoke. Actress Kate Winslett has smoked onscreen before, but not like this.

The tobacco and entertainment industries have long and tangled stories – including product placement in films, TV sponsorships and promotional relationships with glamorous Hollywood stars. In 2012, the Report of the Surgeon General of the United States found “a causal relationship between representations of smoking in films and smoking initiation among young people”.

Today, new forms of nicotine consumption are reflected in popular culture. Is vaping in movies and TV just a case of repeating history or something else?

Smoking leaves the stage on the left

From Humphrey Bogart’s tough detective roles in the 1940s to teenage rebels like James Dean and Olivia Newton-John in Sharon Stone’s Grease to Femme Fatale in the 1990s, smoking was a constant sight for moviegoers until recently. Then attitudes and policies started to change in line with health warnings and government regulations.

While some big tobacco companies claim that they no longer pay or allow their tobacco brands to appear on screen, representations of tobacco remain relatively common, including in global streaming service content with a large audience among young people.

Likewise, creators of entertainment content, like disney, have said they will no longer include depictions of cigarettes in content aimed at children. But the exceptions to the policy mean that the depictions of smoking on screens continue.

Research since the 1930s but first marketed in 2003, electronic cigarettes were designed to look like cigarettes, cigars, pipes, pens, or thumb drives. As said in the podcast The vaping solution, battery-powered products like Juul have been suggested as a safer form of smoking. They emerge as far from harmless. In Australia, it is illegal sell electronic cigarettes that contain nicotine.

Vaping is on the rise

The growing popularity of electronic cigarettes, vaping devices, and heated tobacco have seen these products appear in popular movies and TV shows.

One of the earliest examples of on-screen electronic cigarette use comes from the 2010 film, The tourist, which features the character of Johnny Depp using an electronic cigarette on a train.

The character of Kevin Spacey vapes in a luxury room in the second season of Card castle.

In 2014, a Canadian electronic cigarette company would have paid for his product to be used by the female manager, played by Milla Jovovich, in the film adaptation of Cymbeline.

At first glance, it seems like the vaping industry is simply repeating the very successful tobacco marketing strategies of the past.

Since those early examples of on-screen e-cigarette use, the global tobacco industry has invested heavily in vaping products and their promotion. Exposure to representations and images of vaping on social media platforms are commonplace and includes pay high level users promote electronic cigarettes and tobacco products.

On June 29, 2021, electronic cigarette maker Juul, in which tobacco giant Altria (parent company of Philip Morris USA) holds a 35% stake, agreed to pay $ 40 million to the US state of North Carolina for allegedly marketing to teenagers.

From glamor to gritty

Unlike the first cinematic cigarettes, vaping in the critically acclaimed and popular television series, Easttown Mare, is portrayed as less than glamorous.

Kate Winslet is the main character. Mare is a small town detective who is haunted by a family tragedy and is part of a community affected by drug use, violence, limited health and social services, and poverty. She vapes in scenes of high stress and to escape conflicting situations.

Although Mare is a very likeable character, her vaping is described as an addiction, not a lofty activity. (Insiders say the vape was just an accessory and did not contain nicotine or tobacco.)

Mare also smokes a cigarette in the series which is a realistic portrayal, because nearly 40% of American adult e-cigarette users also smoke. Its smoking is not described as desirable or fashionable, and the series’ themes make it a decidedly grown-up viewing.

This is in striking comparison with previous Winslet roles. In the 1997 film Titanic, his character of Rose smokes using a slim cigarette holder while in the elegant dress and surrounds the luxury cruise liner.

Other recent high profile portrayals of on-screen vaping include Rosamund Pike’s character Marla in the film, I care a lot. His character once ran a failed vape business.

There is no evidence or suggestion that vaping at Mare of Easttown or I Care a Lot is directly sponsored by the vaping or tobacco industry. These particular representations can accurately reflect the reality of vaping and its growing popularity.

Can we regulate it?

Considering Australia strict regulation of vaping products, including advertising restrictions and a ban on the retail sale of any device containing nicotine, no paid vaping product placement would be permitted in content produced in Australia. However, much of the multimedia and entertainment content viewed in Australia is not produced here.

Likewise, while the paid placement of tobacco products or the sponsorship of media content produced in Australia would violate the Tobacco Advertising Ban Act, 1992, this does not prevent content made abroad, which may contain paid promotions, from being distributed here.

The tobacco and entertainment industries have long and tangled histories.  Photo / File
The tobacco and entertainment industries have long and tangled histories. Photo / File

Tobacco representations, even those that glorify or encourage smoking, are permitted provided they are not endorsed or paid for by the tobacco industry. The use of tobacco can be considered by the Australian Classification Commission when assigning a classification score.

Several political solutions have been proposed to reduce the depictions of smoking on screens and these could also apply to the depictions of vaping. They include adult reviews on content that describes usage, certifying that no payment has been received for vaping performances, and not making vaping brands identifiable on screen.

With the changing tobacco and media landscape, it is essential that Australia keep pace with the advertising ban and promotion of all tobacco and vaping products.

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