It was the new Sherlock that first made me think about it. It was pretty clear that a modernised Holmes wasn't going to be using cocaine, and okay the nicotine patches replaced the pipe quite nicely, but what about the total lack of Peruvian Speed Bump? It became another typical Kitchen Conversation in our house: what happened to Holmes's cocaine use, and what should have?
It needed a modern equivalent, which would not have been cocaine. When the Sherlock Holmes stories were written, cocaine was legal. Frowned Upon, but not totally unacceptable. Watson expresses some concern about Holmes's cocaine use on health grounds, and because he believes his friend has an addiction, but he's not about to be carted off by the rozzers or sent to rehab. It seemed to me that what they should have replaced the cocaine use with, to get the same level of social disapproval and health concern, was tobacco.
It's becoming a scary world for the little cigarette these days. The US Center for Disease Control has made recommendations to deal with representation of smoking in movies, which include an R rating for any film depicting smoking tobacco – the same as for smoking marijuana.
Here, researchers at the Otago School of Medicine are calling for smoking videos to be removed from YouTube, and also to implement WHO's framework convention for controlling tobacco advertising on the internet. That last is an interesting document. My favourite bit is this:
Access providers are entities that provide end-user access to communications services, such as Internet service providers and mobile telephone companies. Access providers should have an obligation to disable access to tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship once they have been made aware of the content.
ISPs should prevent access to "tobacco promotion". Using, one would assume, some kind of filter. Don't worry, I'm not going to draw a parallel between child pornography and smoking. Treating those things as in any way equivalent would be insane.
Maybe they have a point, though. Smoking is bad for you, and young people who see a lot of smoking are more likely to start, especially if it's depicted in an exciting glamorous way. That's what the evidence suggests, even though I once watched all three Die Hard movies (yes, I said three) and didn't blow anything up. If there's a clear benefit to preventing people from seeing smoking, shouldn't we do it?
There's a continuum of unease here, I think, and at the "wait, that's just not right" end is photoshopping smoking out of history. Will people start smoking if they see Churchill or The Beetles smoking? If so, do we alter those images to stop it?
And is it much less of a lie to remove smoking from modern depictions of historical people and events? French law meant Coco Avant Chanel couldn't be advertised using images of the actress holding a cigarette. Imagine Mad Men with no smoking. (Mad Men never makes me feel like having a cigarette. Or a drink. It does make me want to buy clothes.)
The suggested American R rating, which the MPAA has refused to adopt, at one point had an exclusion for historical accuracy. Solves that problem. But then what about non-historical accuracy? What about an Outrageous Fortune in which nobody smoked? Wouldn't that be just as much of a lie?
Our attitudes to smoking, even amongst smokers, have changed hugely over the last couple of decades. In my lifetime so far I've gone from trotting up to the shops to buy
packs of Winfield Red for my mother, to finding the idea of smoking inside utterly unfathomable. I've been at evenings in a private house where everyone present smoked, and all got up and went outside to have a cigarette. (For the record, I'm a smoker who doesn't smoke, most of the time. I smoke socially, and when I'm enormously stressed, at which times if you want to deal with my smoking rather than my stress you can fuck right off.)
And maybe we're heading for a future where nobody smokes, except a few weirdos who grow their own tobacco. When it comes to censoring tobacco use on the way, to me the question is this: what's the job of art? Is it to present an aspirational and respirational ideal, or to accurately reflect the world we live in?