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Evil and Penniless Light Up at the Movies

It was a tale of the devil and the pauper — and both were chain smokers.

A study out last month in the journal Chest (search) found that movie characters who light up are more often antagonists rather than protagonists and poor rather than rich.

"The message is clear: Only someone who isn't from the right side of the tracks would put their health at risk and smoke," said Anderson Jones, film critic for AMC's Movie Club.

Thirty-six percent of smoking characters in box-office hits from the 1990s were villains versus 21 percent who were heroes, and 48 percent were lower-class versus 23 percent who were middle-class and 11 percent who were upper-class.

"It's a form of screenwriting shorthand. If you want to indicate a character is bad or shady, you give him a cigarette," Jones said.

Those flicking ashes onscreen are also more likely to be white rather than nonwhite (38 percent vs. 26 percent) and male rather than female (26 percent vs. 21 percent), according to the study in Chest, a journal published by the American College of Chest Physicians (search).

Because evil and down-and-out characters are the ones most often puffing away in pictures, "Smoking in Contemporary American Cinema" (search) concluded Hollywood isn't portraying smoking cigarettes as "all that" — in spite of what previous research has suggested.

"There are many studies that say Hollywood is trying to glamorize smoking," said lead researcher Karan Omidvari, a doctor of pulmonary medicine at St. Michael's Medical Center in Newark, N.J.

"[Our] conclusion was that they were not trying to show it as an upper-class, glamorous thing. It may be cool to be bad, but we were trying to be objective, and these were our conclusions."

While there are still plenty of so-bad-they're-cool characters who smoke in today's movies, it would be a tall order to make the habit look wildly appealing these days, in light of the massive public awareness campaign about the hazards of smoking and several high-profile cases of lung cancer.

The disease recently claimed the life of longtime smoker Peter Jennings (search) and afflicted Christopher Reeve's widow Dana Reeve (search), who isn't a smoker but could have gotten cancer from second-hand smoke.

"Steadily, smoking has gotten to be known to be such a killer," said David Irving, associate professor of film and television at New York University. "It makes it difficult to put your lead character with a cigarette in his mouth."

Among the characters and films looked at in the latest study: The wicked manipulator Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe (search)), who lights up in the "Dangerous Liaisons"-based "Cruel Intentions" (1999); evil terrorist Castor Troy (played by both Nicolas Cage (search) and John Travolta (search)), who chain smokes in "Face/Off" (1997); nasty vampire Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff (search)), a nicotine fiend in "Blade" (1998); and antagonist Jim Phelps (Jon Voight (search)), a smoking spy in "Mission: Impossible" (1996).

And none other than villain-of-all-villains Satan himself — played by Al Pacino (search) — puffs away in "The Devil's Advocate" (1997).

"Smoking is just a prop or wardrobe that helps identify a character as a bad guy," Irving said. "They have to do whatever they can to make the audience feel that this is a despicable person who is fighting or challenging the hero."

But unlike prior research on the topic — which Omidvari characterizes as subjective and slanted — the Chest study found that people don't light up more in movies than they do in real life and the habit isn't on the rise onscreen.

Twenty-three percent of movie characters smoked in the 447 Top 10 box-office hits from the 1990s that were studied. That's compared to the 25 percent of the U.S. general population who are smokers. There is more smoking in R-rated films, particularly independent ones, than in those with G, PG and PG-13 ratings.

But overall, movies look mighty different today than they did in bygone eras — when every Tom, Dick and Harry (not to mention Harriet) were lighting up on the silver screen.

"The rates of smoking in Hollywood movies are on the decline," Omidvari said. "If you look at the movies from the ‘40s, everybody smoked."

Though it's good news that movies seem to have snuffed out at least some cigarette smoking, parents are still concerned about the impact lighting up onscreen has on their kids — no matter what kinds of characters are shown doing it.

"I really don't think that makes a difference," said Chuck Saylors, the secretary-treasurer of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and a father of four. "Whether they're good or bad, poor or rich, black or white, if a student finds favor with a character and that guy smokes, it has an effect."

Saylors, of Greenville, S.C., said his own son — now 21 — began smoking when he was 16 or 17, much to his parents' surprise and chagrin. Saylors believes Hollywood played a role.

"When we confronted him about the dirty deed, he said [he smokes] because it's cool," Saylors said. "[Hollywood] did have some factor in it. It's big in the movies. I would be hard-pressed not to believe that movies have an influence on these decisions."

That may be so, and according to Omidvari, the study doesn't deny that onscreen cigarette use can affect real-life behavior. Jones, the Movie Club critic, said Hollywood's power of persuasion shouldn't be underestimated — even though he characterized films as "dangerously misleading."

"Movies are the most influential medium in the entire world," said Jones. "They shape our dreams and our hopes, they define our heroes, they often show us how to live. They can be especially influential to the young."

But Omidvari and others say his findings contradict accusations that Hollywood is engaged in a calculated plot to encourage teens and other people, especially those from certain demographic groups, to take up cigarettes.

"I don't think the heads of Hollywood studios are sitting there conspiring to get people to smoke," Omidvari said. "If there is a conspiracy, they're a lot more subtle about it and a lot more smart about it."

But the study doesn't necessarily reveal a deliberate effort by the movie industry to show smoking as undesirable and dissuade people from adopting the habit, either.

"It has nothing to do with pushing an agenda," Jones said. "Hollywood is going with the times. It's not cool to smoke — that's why the bad guys are smoking, the antiheroes. If smoking were cool in the real world, it would be out of control in the movies like it used to be."