By Jacob Sullum
Anti-smoking activist Stanton Glantz thought Avatar was "a great movie," except for the one detail that moved him to launch a publicity campaign against it: Grace Augustine, the environmental scientist played by Sigourney Weaver, has a cigarette habit. "This is like someone just put a bunch of plutonium in the water supply," Glantz tells The New York Times, with his usual sense of proportion. In addition to rousing the ire of Glantz's Smoke Free Movies project, Avatar, which is rated PG-13, earned a "black lung" from Scenesmoking.org. In response, director James Cameron says he considers smoking "a filthy habit" and does not view Weaver's character as "an aspirational role model" for teenagers:
She’s rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. Also, from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games....
I don’t believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality. If it’s O.K. for people to lie, cheat, steal and kill in PG-13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking? I do agree that young role-model characters should not smoke in movies, especially in a way which suggests that it makes them cooler or more accepted by their peers.
Cameron is a bit too defensive, I think, but he is right to reject the notion that art should not only be didactic but that it should impart the lessons endorsed by the reigning ideology—in this case, "public health," which elevates the minimization of morbidity and mortality above all other values. The expectation that everyone who is not in the pocket of Big Tobacco will toe the official line is one of the creepiest aspects of the contemporary anti-smoking movement, as exemplified by Glantz.
I criticized the campaign for smoke-free movies in a 2003 column and discussed Glantz's wild claims about the impact of cinematic smoking in a 2005 column. Last month Peter Suderman raised some non-tobacco-related objections to Avatar.