Vaping In Hollywood: Why Are Recent Releases Removing Cigarettes from the Spotlight?
I Care A Lot, Netflix, 2021. Screenshot Source: r/Vaping101, u/directorball.
Warning: Mild film spoilers.
Hollywood and Its Obsession with Smoking
In 2012, the U.S. Surgeon General released a comprehensive study with results indicating that access to television and cinematic media portraying cigarette use encouraged youth viewers to begin smoking; furthermore, that reducing or removing cigarette usage in films would lead to a decrease in youth smoking - and they were right.
Adding smoking to a character’s persona has a long and tired history in cinema: it’s historically been the go-to move to make a cool character even cooler. From old detective films to Clint Eastwood Westerns to pretty much every Tarantino movie ever, for some reason the film industry believes that cigarettes make a guy look cooler. Even all-time-cool-guy Samuel L. Jackson smoked while playing a computer nerd in Jurassic Park. Smoking has also been used to try to make female characters look sexier, with roots tracing back all the way to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Where did Hollywood get this idea? If that truly is the intention of needlessly adding cigarette smoking to films, then surely it is a dangerous message to send to teen viewers. In the last two decades, the industry has taken steps to reduce cigarette usage on screen, namely for PG-13 movies (smoking in R-rated films has actually continued to rise). There are even health groups like Truth Initiative and Smokefree Movies UCSF pushing the Motion Picture Association of America to award any film portraying “tobacco incidents” an automatic R-rating.
Making the Transition: Replacing Cigarettes with Vaping
You’ve probably noticed in your last two decades of movie-watching that characters’ cigarette usage really has slowed down. You may have also noticed that vaping is becoming more and more prevalent in films, but this is nothing new. Johnny Depp’s character in The Tourist noticeably used an e-cig in the film’s most important scene, and that was back in 2010. The first instance of vaping in television occurred in House of Cards in 2013, where Kevin Spacey’s character specifically mentioned that he was using an e-cig to quit smoking.
To vapers, this is a refreshing sight to see. Many vapers have spent their lives a slave to cigarettes, and the “smoking is cool” message that Hollywood has tried to push just doesn’t ring the same to those who know how much it actually sucks. Watching vaping become a more mainstream visual in cinema means watching less real-life teens picking up smoking, and reminds current smokers that there is a way out of the endless nicotine trap.
Despite the halt on many films in Hollywood since March 2020, some incredible must-sees have recently dropped on various streaming platforms, and it’s hard not to notice that vapes were front and center.
2021 Vape Culture and Its Effect of Film
If you’ve been watching Netflix lately, the example at the forefront of your mind is probably I Care A Lot, a 2021 film by J Blakeson starring Rosamund Pike. Pike’s character is a tough-as-nails, never-back-down, morally-sketchy businesswoman who takes the Russian cartel head on, with her trusty Uwell Nunchaku vape in her hand nearly at all times. Turns out, there was originally an entire backstory where she tried to run a vape business fair and square, got burned by competition, then turned her business dirty. The remaining scenes where her vape kit is on her desk or in her hand are still important to both the film and her character: she works out incessantly, she vapes when need be - she may be evil, but her health is her priority above all.
Another recent example can be found on Amazon Prime, in the wildly creative and creepy sci-fi film Possessor, by Brandon Cronenberg. Without getting into too much detail (because you really should watch this movie), the film takes cyber-crime and identity theft to an entirely new level, and in this futuristic realm it seems that cigarettes no longer exist. In fact, most of the film’s characters puff on what looks like a Geekvape Aegis Zeus Kit or another similarly techy device. While vaping doesn’t really add to the story itself, the departure from traditional cigarettes adds to the futuristic feel of the film, a world where society’s reliance on cigarettes is obsolete.
As previously mentioned, vaping in modern media isn’t limited to quarantine-era films. Vapes and e-cigs have made appearances in Dirty Grandpa and Neighbors (maybe Zac Efron is a real-life vaper?), 2 Broke Girls, The Simpsons, even video games like Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain have switched Big Boss' famous cigar to a vape pen.
It seems that Hollywood is finally giving up their outdated idea that smoking is the lazy way to show which character is “the cool one” and is finally getting the hint that viewers want their protagonists (and antagonists) to match the real world: health-conscious and striving to be free of nicotine.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2012 [accessed 2019 April 22].