Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: ‘Avatar’ sends the wrong message with smoking scenex

I recently had the pleasure of viewing the incredible cinematography of “Avatar” with my family.

It was fantastic in many ways, but I found the scene of Sigourney Weaver clamoring for a cigarette and puffing it with relish to be disturbing for a movie clearly targeting a teenage audience (as well as adults).

Research clearly shows an association between viewing smoking in movies and the initiation of smoking, as well as the likelihood of becoming an established smoker in adolescence.

In one study of about 3,000 nonsmoking adolescents, 17 percent of students in the highest quartile of exposure to movie smoking had initiated smoking compared with only 3 percent in the lowest quartile. After adjustments for confounders, this study concluded that about 50 percent of smoking initiation could be attributed to exposure to smoking in movies.

In a second, longer-term study of a similar population, movie smoking exposure significantly predicted progression to established smoking.

This study estimated that about 35 percent of established smokers in this group of teens could be attributed to movie smoking exposure. Of note, 80 percent of smoking exposure in this group of adolescents occurred in “G,” “PG” and “PG-13” movies.

Quoted in a New York Times article, James Cameron explained his reasons for having Sigourney Weaver’s character, an environmental scientist, smoke: “I wanted Grace to be a character who is initially off-putting and even unpleasant. She’s rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. She is not meant to be an aspirational role model to teenagers.” 

Though I’m generally inclined to leave the art to the artist, I believe the character’s rudeness and language alone sufficiently depict her character as “off-putting.”

In addition, as Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, pointed out, her role as an environmental scientist is incongruous with her role as a chain smoker.

He said, “I know lots of environmental scientists like the Sigourney Weaver character. Not a single one of them smokes cigarettes.”

The overriding point, however, is that for an adolescent audience, there is a strong correlation between movie smoking and real smoking.

Hollywood should do its part to find alternatives to smoking scenes to reveal character qualities.

I congratulate Cameron and all involved on creating an incredible piece of work, and I respect Cameron’s willingness to comment on his views of the “Avatar” smoking scene. However, given the documented harms to our adolescent population, I hope that he will voluntarily exclude smoking scenes from future movies targeted to an adolescent audience and encourage his peers to do so as well.

I also support a modification to the rating system to clearly label a movie as having smoking scenes.

Dr. Stephen A. Hilty practices internal medicine in San Luis Obispo.