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When There's Smoke On Tv, There's Usually Guilt

July 18, 1993|LYNN ELBER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Television, which kicked the cigarette advertising habit under duress more than two decades ago, is still blowing smoke at viewers.

But the tobacco-stained series popping up on TV often include the dramatic equivalent of a surgeon general's warning. In episode after episode, characters who puff are chastised, criticized and mocked.

Banish the classic film image of suave Paul Henreid lighting up a pair of cigarettes and bestowing one on Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager"; think, instead, of Marge Simpson's frumpy, chain-smoking sisters.

"In general, television's much better than the movies in not glamorizing tobacco and tobacco addiction," says Joe Cherner, president of Smokefree Educational Services, a nonprofit, New York-based anti-smoking group.

On "Beverly Hills, 90210," Brenda (Shannen Doherty) is unmasked as a closet smoker and has to endure friends' comments about how, like, yucky, cigarette breath smells. The peer pressure leads her to quit.

In "Hearts Afire," Georgie Ann (Markie Post) is a slob of a smoker who drops ashes in the bathtub. She finally gives up the habit after being derided by her romantic partner (John Ritter).

In "Wings," an unhappy Helen (Crystal Bernard) appears with an uncharacteristic cigarette in hand. Confronted about it, she says that she's trying to kill herself. Chainsmokers on other series kicked the habit, including an attorney on "L.A. Law" and a sportswriter on "Love and War."

Smokers, generally, are subpar role models, such as Marge's lowlife siblings on "The Simpsons," but there are shows where smoking goes unchallenged. In "Evening Shade," Burt Reynolds and Elizabeth Ashley have been shown puffing cigars (him) and cigarettes (her) contentedly. But series executives vow to be more circumspect in the upcoming season.

"We're aware that a show does set an example on many levels, and smoking is one of them," said Victor Fresco, "Evening Shade's" co-executive producer. "We are going to make an effort to curtail smoking." He said smoking has never been scripted, but introduced at the request of the actors.

Before TV was pushed into banning cigarette ads, there was a warm and cozy relationship between the TV and tobacco industries. Cigarette makers sponsored popular shows, with such blatant promotions as one host's sign-off recalled by Cherner: "This is Arthur buy-em-by-the-pack Godfrey."

Series stars such as Steve McQueen, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball gave smiling pitches for cigarette brands; even cartoon character Fred Flintstone hawked a label.

Television's current anti-smoking fervor may be that of a sinner reformed yet again. After weaning itself from cigarette advertising, TV networks adopted voluntary guidelines that called for smoking only when essential to the character being depicted.

But about a year ago, backsliding series began puffing and wheezing their way through pack after pack--often without an anti-smoking punchline.

The trend was so noticeable that it raised hackles among viewers who complained to John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health. Banzhaf called the growth in TV smoking illogical, if not suspicious: There's a clear increase in anti-smoking sentiment among the public.

About a year ago, the Entertainment Industries Council, a 10-year-old, nonprofit group, undertook a Tobacco in Media project to help producers and writers avoid the gratuitous or positive use of tobacco.

The project drew up a series of guidelines, including suggestions that cigarettes be abandoned as mere props for actors and that smoking be depicted as addictive behavior, not a "positive social activity."

So let's call TV a smoke-free zone. Now, about this tendency toward violence . . .

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