Film actors’ flaunting of tobacco brands rises despite ban

Endorsement of tobacco brands by actors appearing in US-made feature films has increased significantly since 1990, when the American film industry adopted voluntary guidelines on paid tobacco brand endorsements, according to a US study published in the 6 January issue of The Lancet.

The US film industry adopted the guidelines just as the US Congress was holding hearings to examine partnerships between the tobacco and the film industries. The guidelines ban tobacco companies from making payments to film-makers and actors in exchange for featuring tobacco products in films.

But the ban has done little to reduce tobacco brand appearances, says James Sargent, a Professor of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and lead author of the Lancet paper. Dr Sargent’s research team scrutinized the top 25 US box office films from 1988 to 1997, a total of 250 films. They split the films into two groups, those made before the guidelines took effect and those made afterwards. The researchers then measured the number and type of tobacco brand appearances found in each film.

The overall prevalence of brand appearances —found in more than a quarter of the films, with tobacco use appearing in more than four-fifths — didn’t change after the ban took effect, but there was a dramatic increase in the proportion of films showing actors using specific tobacco brands: from 1% of films before to 11% after the ban. Four US cigarette brands accounted for 80% of the brand appearances (see pie-chart).

‘‘Actor endorsement is just the kind of thing companies are willing to pay lots of money for,’’ Sargent says. As evidence he points to other product placement deals. Producers of a 1997 James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, received nearly US$ 98 million from corporations in return for featuring their brands of such goods as beer, spirits, car, and mobile phones. Meanwhile, Walt Disney studios charged companies US$ 60 000 to have an actor use their product in the film Mr Destiny.



Tobacco companies deny that they are paying to have their products featured in films, saying that such deals fall under their voluntary ban. ‘‘We don’t pay for product placement in movies. We don’t even provide products to movie producers,’’ says Daniel Martz, spokesperson for Philip Morris International, maker of Marlboro cigarettes. Though Sargent says there is not any direct evidence that tobacco companies are paying for product placements, he believes the film industry must take responsibility for the message it is sending when it shows tobacco products in films. US films are marketed to a global audience, and that means they are reaching the same foreign markets that tobacco companies are targeting most now that they face a rapidly declining US market. ‘‘Movies are a big social influence. When actors endorse brands, whether they are paid or not, they are marketing a tobacco product to an international audience, and they need to take responsibility for that’’, Dr Sargent commented to the Bulletin. Questioned by the Bulletin as to how film actors view the issue, Greg Krizman, National Director of Communications for the US Screen Actors Guild, would only say, ‘‘We’re very sensitive to it’’.

Christie Aschwanden
Nederland, Colorado, USA

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland