March 19, 2021
Actors lighting up cigarettes (or vaping these days) in movies seems to be common, but new data from Dish Network contends just 6% of feature films today depict characters smoking. That’s down from 39% in 1970. The percentage skyrockets going back further to the Golden Age of Hollywood when characters were so often seen with cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and alcohol, it almost seemed like extensions of their bodies.
Back then smoking was viewed as a status symbol, and tobacco brands often sponsored film studios. Some actors even had their own endorsements. Since smoking was such an accepted practice in society, the habit easily made its way onto the big screen.
Dish took to IMDb and analyzed movies from 1950 to September 2020, sticking to titles with a rating of 3 stars or more (out of 10) and at least 1,000 votes by IMBb users to ensure the film’s quality. The result was more than 3,000 movies tabulated.
Interestingly, Clint Eastwood topped the list of actors smoking in scenes largely due to his spaghetti westerns at the beginning of his career — a habit the actor apparently stopped after playing vigilante cop Dirty Harry and every movie character thereafter. Betty Davis topped the list of female characters lighting up
Cigar smoking was the overall most popular smoking category (see Eastwood) in films — reaching a peak of 24% in 1973. Pipe smoking was consistently more popular than cigarette smoking, probably due to the 1964 Surgeon General’s report that claimed pipe smokers lived longer than cigarette smokers. Hint: They don’t.
While John Wayne admitted to a six-pack-a-day habit during his cancer-shortened life, contemporary actor Jon Hamm actually smoked fake cigarettes in his breakout role in “Mad Men,” including inhaling 74 cigarettes alone in the pilot episode.
Other facts: Smoking was most commonly (54%) found in movies with an ‘R’ rating, and comedies (29%), while largely absent in Disney and Netflix original titles, reflecting changing societal norms and more assertive healthcare campaigns.