From the SmokeFree Movies Web Site (University of California San Francisco):Two things here....
...in 2008, after the most comprehensive review of the science to date, the US National Cancer Institute went even further. It concluded:
"The total weight of evidence from cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies indicates a casual relationship between exposure to depictions of smoking in movies and youth smoking initiation."
First, it's fine to study the effects of movie images on young people. If research shows that smoking in movies proves detrimental to the health of kids and teens, then it is admirable to make public that research. I don't call for censorship, but a stronger effort to limit the types of film material that is exposed to younger viewers without adult guidance.
(The article above goes back to the 1970 ban on TV cigarette advertising, when studies even then showed a correlation between exposure to advertising and an earlier onset of smoking. The piece goes on to suggest that the tobacco industry turned to Hollywood movies as vehicles for cigarette product placement, which was not outlawed along with the TV ban. Thus, Big Tobacco found a way to work around the ban, and smoking scenes steadily increased into the early 2000's.)
The second point is: of all of the things that should be scrutinized and controlled to protect younger viewers, on-screen smoking would seem to be rather benign as compared to other movie images that may be more dangerous to emulate. We brush off scenes depicting binge drinking, reckless driving, grotesque mistreatment of people, and laugh it off as just the conventions of comedy or horror or action, and should not be taken seriously.
If we can prove that movie images affect behavior, then critics need to focus a little bit less on the smoking issue and more on the real morbid material. We may have no idea how silently traumatized kids are at movie images that adults take in stride. Why not measure and control images of gun use; alcohol consumption; drug use; torture; misogyny; homophobia? Kids are finding and watching this stuff, even with the most restricted ratings.
Come on, what would us young moviegoers (of a certain age) have done had we been denied the pleasures of watching Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Liza Minnelli, Marlene Dietrich, --so many legends --with their cigarettes? And by the way, to the critics and alarmists on this issue, many of us never took up the habit.
I guess it's okay to depict mutilation, and that sort of thing, as long as the performers aren't lighting up.