Jive Talkin’ And The Puff of Smoke

The Marlboro Man did a great job of selling smokes until he died of lung cancer, so there isn’t much of a question that smoking cigarettes is a bad thing and, kids, don’t do it. Now that the obvious has been said, with apologies to Gertrude, what about the movies?

The evidence is conclusive. Smoking in movies kills in real life.

The evidence is sufficient to conclude that there is a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking among young people. — US Surgeon General, 2012

Giving an R rating to future movies with smoking would be expected to reduce the number of teen smokers by nearly 1 in 5 (18%) and prevent one million deaths from smoking among children alive today. — US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014

The Surgeon General, like the US National Cancer Institute and World Health Organization, concluded that on-screen smoking harms large numbers of kids only after reviewing decades of evidence — all types of evidence.

Will puffing Pinocchio cause six-year-olds to yearn for that first smoke?


Regardless, the Motion Picture Association of America is under attack for smoking in movies.

A new legal complaint has been brought against the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and the court’s decision may determine whether the mere presence of tobacco products in a film constitutes an automatic R rating.

The idea to ban smoking imagery from films rated G, PG, or PG-13 seems harsher than an unfiltered Marlboro, but that’s exactly what a group of plaintiffs led by Timothy Forsyth has in mind, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Their argument: Since on-screen smoking has a provable connection to teenagers buying more cigarettes, it must be banned from all films labeled suitable for children.

Is this censorship? Of course it is.  There is nothing to prevent a movie studio from making films that comport with whatever the latest, greatest, bubblewrapped do-it-for-the-children feelz demand, or to put a Triple X rating on films that reflected the sensibilities of their age, but no longer meet the current hemline mandates.

And lest you think ill of studios for doing so, they’ve always played to the sensibilities of their audiences. They want people to buy tickets to movies, and give people the movies they think they want. What? You thought turning Ghostbusters into a chick flick was an accident?

But suing the MPAA to force censorship raises the stakes.  Regardless of whether it’s a good cause or not, it’s clearly a content based restriction that doesn’t come anywhere near, no less falls within, a category of unprotected speech.  It violates the First Amendment, which is reason enough for the suit to fail.

And yet, there is a growing mindset behind this push, much like the flagrant lies behind the “revenge porn crimes don’t violate the First Amendment because sad tears,” that is becoming more pervasive and dangerous.  It’s not just the misquoted excuses, the “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater” and the “Constitution isn’t a suicide pact.”  People don’t arrive at their hatred of other people’s rights because of such nonsense, but use the nonsense to justify their cries to prohibition.

What makes people hate other people exercising their rights so damn much?

The QDOS is political correctness, but it’s a trite and unsatisfying answer.  We are pretty far down the road of Other People Saving Us From Ourselves already, and most don’t realize it. Indoctrination is a tricky thing, and there are a great many freedoms we’ve come to forego that don’t show up on the radar anymore.

What, you ask? There was a time when cars didn’t have seat belts, when motorcyclists didn’t have to wear helmets, when kids were allowed to ride the subway by themselves and when an underage kid sneaking into a bar was a rite of passage. And watching Disney movies.

It’s not that these are good things to do, necessarily (though some aren’t nearly as bad as we’ve come to believe because indoctrination), but that there are laws mandating that we do so for our own good.

You agree with these rules? That’s nice, but that’s irrelevant. Who made you the National Virtue Czar? We’re so taken with our own opinions that we passionately believe we’re right to ram them down everyone’s throat. After all, we’re right! Isn’t that good enough?  And yet, even if you draw a line somewhere, that while some of these prohibitions are okay with you, others aren’t, you fail to grasp that the line exists only in your head.

Also, it’s kind of crazy to think of the Lord of the Rings trilogy being deemed unsuitable for kids just because Gandalf blows a few smoke rings, but that may be the brave, new, tobacco-less world we’ll have to get used to.

Gandalf’s pipe is just the beginning. Notice any black elves? Gay elves? Transgender elves? #ElvesSoWhite?

There was a time when movie studios were putting out films in the genre of blaxploitation. There was a time before that when they were making westerns, and if you don’t remember, the Indians fared poorly. Both of these genres are pretty much gone, not because laws prohibited them, but because people stopped watching them. Movie studios don’t make films people don’t watch.

If you want to be politically correct, you should. If you want to implore others to be politically correct, go for it. Argue your flavor of right and wrong all day long. That’s your right, and I applaud you for standing up for what you believe in, even if I think you’re batshit crazy. My opinion is no more relevant than yours, and if something offends your sensibilities, then you should take a stand.

But the use of law, unconstitutional law, to elevate your feelings to the level of legal prohibition crosses a line that’s not yours to cross. You can persuade me, if you can, but you can’t force me to live whatever lifestyle you deem best.

If people find smoking in movies abhorrent, then they won’t watch them and won’t take their little darling to see them. And if they don’t, movie studios won’t make them, though you can never tell what those nasty indies will do. But the message from people who go to movies where people smoke, take their children to see those movies, is that they don’t want to live in your Utopia, just as you don’t want to live in theirs. Live and let live, and the law isn’t your bludgeon to force others to live their lives as you dictate. Enjoy your bubblewrap.

H/T Walter Olson

7 thoughts on “Jive Talkin’ And The Puff of Smoke

  1. Maz

    This may just be the height (depth?) of the let’s-fix-it-with-law syndrome: a lawsuit to compel a voluntary trade organization with no enforcement powers to assign to certain content an advisory rating of no legal meaning. With such tactics (before your recent post, I would have said ‘strategy’), under-age smoking is surely a thing of the past.

    (Reminds me of nothing so much as Connie Willis’s sf novel “Remake,” where the narrator’s job is the digital excision of all instances of and references to smoking from classic films. In the novel, of course, such an effort is meant to be absurd. (This was before Jackson Pollock and Robert Johnson suffered cigarettomies at the hands of the USPS, though.)

    1. Patrick Maupin

      “the let’s-fix-it-with-law syndrome: a lawsuit to compel a voluntary trade organization with no enforcement powers to assign to certain content an advisory rating of no legal meaning.”

      There’s a meaning that, from the standpoint of the general public, is practically indistinguishable from a legal meaning, though, when kids can’t see an otherwise G-rated movie without an accompanying adult simply because the bad guy smokes in one scene.

      If the government can force disclosure of foodstuff ingredients and compel speech on the side of cigarette packages, then it would seem unproblematic for Congress to pass a law that movies which depict smoking must display a separate warning label.

      But conflating that disclosure with the current rating system is arguably stupid — do we really want kids sneaking into R-rated movies just to see the smoking? And, if you’re really thinking of the children and what their future is going to be like, then trying to get courts to legislate this sort of thing from the bench is even stupider.

      1. Dragoness Eclectic

        If they’ll pay for my ticket, I’ll volunteer to be the “accompanying adult” for any of the little darlings that want to see a movie with smoking in it. Or sex, for that matter. America still hasn’t shaken off its Puritan heritage, and it’s long past time we did–they were a nasty bunch.

  2. John Barleycorn

    It’s probably too late esteemed one.

    But with a guy locked into a carcadin schedule such as yours, if you started trolling the right clubs,  it could happen just in time for your grandkids to enjoy it, with a little luck.

    Because everyone knows only a Latvian metal band, after playing New York, will be able to bring to Tokyo the proper rendition of Jive Talkin’ and Nights on Broadway when the Japanese are teaching them how to drink.

    Which will then be preformed over and over again for a half century in all the  karaoke bars in the world  between 3-4:30 a.m. Which in turn will eventually bring back the 42nd Street scene as it was always ment to be in NYC before people got all bludgeon-ie with the “law”.

    Stranger shit has happened and if we get really lucky a few past mayors hyper- embalmed bodies will be dug up or removed from tombs to be used as window props to sell porn so their heirs can afford to go to college and the remixed Barbra Streisand soundtracks are gonna be out of this world.

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