Cigarettes and tobacco smoking have long been present on the screen. The relationship between cigarettes and cinema has gone through various forms, including product placement, marketing purposes, and smoking to further a film’s plot or character arc.

However, in recent years, the rate of actual smokers in the US has steadily decreased from about 42% between 1965 and 2019 to just 14%. This decrease is attributed to the widespread knowledge and awareness of the harms of smoking. By now, researchers have established that cigarette smoking is a known risk factor for various cancers, including lung, bladder, and pancreatic cancers. Tobacco use is also a significant risk factor for preventable diseases.

This considerable decrease in off-screen smoking has also translated to the big screen. In recent years, many movie productions have shied away from tobacco and cigarette imagery on-screen. Aside from health concerns, fictional depictions of smoking can also influence smokers and non-smokers to keep up the bad habit. However, some recent releases are still cigarette-heavy visually. This includes 2023’s nuclear biopic Oppenheimer and the 70s set The Holdovers.

For many of these films, cigarettes and smoking were integral to their stories due to the time, setting, and character motivations. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the current state of on-screen smoking and how film productions are doing cigarette-heavy scenes and stories without putting their actors and staff at severe risk.

The shift away from on-screen smoking

As highlighted above, as more and more people become aware of the harms of cigarette smoking, many film producers and production houses shy away from pushing cigarette and tobacco imagery in their releases. However, cigarettes have become so ingrained in our society that some films inevitably have them as an integral part of their stories, scenes, and shots.

This is especially true for more independent productions that tell darker or more reality-based narratives. This is because most indies work with significantly less budget than blockbuster productions and may not have access to workarounds that bigger productions do. For example, Oppenheimer used Honeyrose cigarettes to allow for on-set and on-screen smoking without putting actors, staff, and others in danger. These cigarettes contain less dangerous and organic ingredients, including rose petals, clover, and tea leaves.

Oppenheimer (Courtesy of MovieStillsDB)

On the other hand, this may not be a priority for most indie productions. A majority of this year’s Sundance short films, for example, were international, including work from 22 countries worldwide. These shorts cover diverse narratives, from an uprising set in Iran to other dark themes like death, sex, and drugs.

Still, smoking remains a significant health concern off-screen, and reducing on-screen depictions of the toxic habit can help translate into lower smoking rates around the world as well. Even big tobacco companies that previously worked alongside films for product placements have since shifted towards healthier, smoke-free alternatives. Alongside Big Tobacco, many startups have joined the scene to offer smokeless substitutes.

Cutting-edge cessation company LUCY is one of these, offering a range of 100% tobacco-free products to aid in smoking cessation. Today, LUCY nicotine pouches range from unique flavors like mango and cinnamon to wintergreen and espresso to help make smoking cessation more approachable and accessible to smokers and former smokers. Depending on tolerance and preference, users can also choose from a range of nicotine strengths (4mg up to 12mg) to curb cigarette cravings.

Another prominent startup in the scene is Blip. The new company offers Blip gum and lozenges that are designed and packaged to look more approachable than “bland” CVS brands. Aside from offering smoke-free products, Blip is also focused on catering to Gen Z audiences and building like-minded, health-focused communities to encourage collective cessation.

While we may continue to see cigarette depictions on the screen, it would be interesting to see a future where substitutes like nicotine pouches, gum, and lozenges are shown on-screen. After all, seeing on-screen depictions can help influence viewers and audiences for the better.