Smoking Scenes in Chinese Movies a Dying Breed

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China smoking movies

Smoking scenes in Chinese movies and television series are seeing a major decline. While the country itself is still the world’s largest tobacco consumer, the film and television industry is slowly making steps towards a more smoke-free viewing experience.

20 of the 30 most popular Chinese films in 2017 contained at least one smoking scene, down 23 percent from 2007. Television has followed the same trend with only 17 of the top 30 shows depicting a character lighting up, a decline of 37 percent.

Actors and anti-smoking activists have taken a stand against production companies, arguing for a stricter rating system in Chinese films and TV that would reduce young viewers from seeing characters lighting up. Actor Feng Yuanzheng, China’s anti-smoking image ambassador, believes that movies with scenes featuring inhalation can influence teenagers, and thus hopes for a movie rating system to help limit younger audience viewing.

Anti-smoking associations fighting to lessen youth exposure to cigarette culture are calling out the Chinese film industry in a big way. The Dirty Ashtray Award is a mock accomplishment given to those offending movies who seemingly promote tobacco use, reports China Daily. The award aims to shame movie production teams into de-glamourising smoking in film and TV.

A country’s films tend to be representative of its culture and Chinese films are no exception. One in every three cigarettes consumed in the world is smoked in China, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey. The same survey reports that nearly one third of China’s population smokes regularly.

It comes as no surprise then that Liao Wenke, deputy director of the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, studied the 30 most popular Chinese films of the last year, in the process creating a “dirty ashtray list”, organised by minutes on screen. Top of the charts; “The Founding of an Army”, which features nearly 20 minutes of on-screen smoking. 14.3 percent of the film’s total run time is composed of scenes in which people light up.

With period dramas seeing an increase in popularity, it would be nearly impossible to cut out the habit altogether from the viewer experience. Earlier this year, The Nanjinger reported on the Chinese authorities’ promotion of a so-called “People’s Cinema Line”, that would prioritise mainstream Chinese movies with the themes of nation, reform and history. Smoking remains a significant element of all three, and its inclusion in such movies, for the sake of realism, arguably mandatory.

“Some movies must have smoking scenes to create an atmosphere, so it’s not possible to ban smoking scenes in all films”, Liao said. “But we can use a movie rating system to limit those movies from widespread dissemination”, added Jiang Wen, a publicity officer for the National Health Commission.