Walt Disney’s Smoking Habits Cut From ‘Saving Mr. Banks;’ Should We Put Out Cinematic Cigarettes?

By  · Published on November 19th, 2013

Smoking is bad.

Chances are, you’re already aware of this fact. If you’ve spent time in the civilized world, you’ve doubtless seen at least one billboard, TV commercial, or warning label announcing this very fact. The reasons are obvious, of course; cigarette smoking is known to cause lung cancer, birth defects and, in rare cases, dangerously funky bad breath. So add this article to the ever-expanding list of products that contain a warning about the dangers of smoking.

One product not on the list, however, is Saving Mr. Banks. Odd, considering that Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks in the film), was a lifelong chain smoker and passed away from lung cancer in 1966. But Disney (the company, that is) and their ironclad policies on cigarette smoking have dissipated the thick grey fumes that were the Mickey Mouse creator’s constant companion. After a screening of the film at the 2013, Napa Valley Film Festival, director John Lee Hancock and producer Alison Owen spoke about the restrictions the House of Mouse placed on Saving Mr. Banks. The two anticipated a lengthy set of guidelines for the first major portrayal of Walt Disney in a mainstream film, but in the end, the media giant asked only one thing of the filmmakers. Says Owen, “They told us there could be no smoking.”

And so Mr. Disney’s very real smoking habits and health concerns were tossed out the window. Hancock and Owen managed a slight feint around the rules- in one scene, Disney stubs out a cigarette, although neither the stub nor the smoke it produced can be seen. It seems the Disney corporation is fine with this little run-around. At least for now. Neither Hancock nor Owen, as far as anyone knows, has been kidnapped in the dead of night by armed guards (presumably wearing Mickey ears) and thrown in a containment cell to be interrogated by a pair of talking badgers. For the time being, they’re safe.

So are our nation’s children, it would seem. Disney’s ban on cinema tobacco started in 2007, when the company rolled out a plan to “discourage depictions of cigarette smoking in its films,” and began placing anti-smoking PSA’s before any film that includes a single puff, be it an old film or new; theatrical release or DVD. Cigarettes might seem like old hat to some. When some study brings to mind an impressionable teen copycatting a favorite star’s smoking habits, it’s natural to think of Humphrey Bogart sucking down sweet, sweet ash in the days before warning labels. Kids these days know the risks, and smoking would naturally be a far rarer occurrence on the big screen. Yet two years before Disney first put its glass-slippered foot down, tobacco could be found in 67 percent of 2005’s top grossing films. The numbers have dropped steadily since then, especially as Comcast and Time Warner followed Disney’s lead with similar restrictions. By 2011, tobacco usage had dropped by 96 percent in the films of those three companies.

But is getting rid of smoking entirely really the best way to go? When debating the subject, there’s the obvious counter-argument: smoking is removed, yet drinking, drugs, violence, and gratuitous sex all get a free pass. To be fair there’s a strain of hypocrisy here. But there’s also a difference between smoking and the rest of these equally risque (and fun!) vices. With smoking, the disastrous side effects are mostly long-term. Binge drinking, crack smoking, or being shot in the face with a bazooka can have immediate consequences that must be shown to maintain a sense of realism. Unless this is Man of Steel IV: The Quest for Good Times, no onscreen character will be able to drink a gallon of vodka, plow a Subaru through a series of townhouses and then emerge unscathed. Yet a character can go through a pack a day and conveniently skip the scene where, thirty years later, he suffers from emphysema and dies, because it has nothing to do with the actual narrative.

Then there are studies like the one from the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, which paint a blatant and obvious link between fictional smokers and real-life ones. According to the study, “15-year-olds who saw the most films showing actors smoking were 73% more likely to have tried it than those who had seen the fewest.” Yet the study doesn’t call for a ban the way Disney has. Instead, it argues that “films ought to be rated by exposure to smoking in the same way that they are currently rated by level of violence,” and that an 18 certificate (similar to the MPAA’s R rating) should be distributed to films that contain tobacco use. Another study here in the US was conducted to similar results.

There’s got to be some kind of middle ground here. The outright ban that Disney’s enacted seems a little extreme. Maybe not for your average kid’s movie, but a film about Walt Disney may need to tackle all of Disney’s life- that includes his smoking habits. The evidence is clear: the more smoking there is in films, the more children will end up smoking. But filmmakers should be free to tackle any subject they choose in a positive or a negative light, and that includes cigarettes. Higher ratings for tobacco-stained films would likely have a extremely positive effect; banning any and all instances of smoking might set a nasty precedent for movie censorship.

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