Watching television as a former smoker is often an exercise in self-torture. Especially when watching so-called “prestige” dramas: Breaking Bad; Mad Men; The Walking Dead; Westworld. Though smoking has decreased in prevalence to all-time lows in network television, smoking continues to be quite common on cable, and smokers appear in roughly 60 percent of movies rated PG-13 or above. Watching someone else smoke, even on-screen, it turns out, is a really powerful trigger to someone who is trying to quit.
It’s better, maybe, than back when smoking ads were everywhere, when Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck hawked Chesterfields in beautiful print ads. It’s better, probably, than when Jack Webb said in an ad that he smoked “two packs a day” while on the set of Dragnet. Seriously, how the fuck do you smoke 40 cigarettes in a working day, dude?
Of course, January Jones, playing Betty Draper, isn’t even really smoking. She’s smoking “herbal cigarettes,” whatever they are. What are they, anyway? What herbs? It’s helpful for me, the former smoker, to remind myself of this: “She’s not even really smoking, she’s not even really smoking.” And it’s definitely helpful to January Jones, who won’t have to go out the way Humphrey Bogart, who died for his art, puffing away on-screen like the cool man he was, did. January Jones will be just fine because on the set of Mad Men, no one is actually smoking tobacco cigarettes. Smoking is a prop.
The relationship among smoking, screens, our health, and ads is long and fraught and, increasingly, a lie. Where we once told ourselves that smoking wasn’t that harmful or that ads didn’t really influence children, we now accept the reality that smoking kills you and ads change hearts and minds. But smoking, somehow, remains on TV and in movies. And where actors and actresses used to actually light up and smoke on The Tonight Show or in their roles, today, real smoking for a part is not really done too much. Today, we fake smoking on-screen. But fake smoke is still influencing people to smoke for real. Put that in your… oh, never mind.
In 2012, the surgeon general of the United States concluded, finally, that smoking in movies causes teenagers to take up smoking. What he decided was that the more on-screen exposure kids had to smoking, the more likely they were to begin smoking themselves, and the vast majority of smokers begin before the age of 18. In 1970 Congress passed a landmark decision and banned cigarette advertisements on television and radio, after a 1964 report, also by the surgeon general, which told everyone what they already suspected: Smoking was indeed really, really bad for one’s health. It caused lung cancer, among other things, and lung cancer was and is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Most smoking ads, anti-smoking government advocates argued, targeted young people. Hell, smoking ads aired during kids programming classics like The Flintstones and The Beverly Hillbillies. Tobacco companies wanted kids to smoke. The government put its foot down pretty hard, but making smoking seem uncool isn’t that simple, and smoking on-screen didn’t only come in the form of actual advertisement.
And it turns out it doesn’t necessarily matter so much if it’s an ad from the 1950s making smoking seem healthy and cool or Don Draper chain-smoking through every episode of Mad Men as part of his “character.” On-screen smoking makes people — all people, not just teens — want to smoke more. Incidents of on-screen smoking have decreased overall since the 1950s, when it seemed as if nearly every person smoked almost all the time, but the data still show that more than 60 percent of movies and about 30 percent of TV shows depict people smoking. Smoking, at least on TV and in movies, remains pretty fucking cool. It signals, even now that we know how deadly it is, coolness, sexiness, and badness.
Smoking, at least on TV and in movies, remains pretty fucking cool.
Prop cigarettes are a tidy business; ask any prop master in Hollyweed and they’ll tell you what you need to know. There are a bunch of brands and flavors of herbal cigarettes. Mad Men used Ecstacy Herbal Cigarettes (which you can buy for about 6 bucks on Amazon) often packaged in the boxes of real brands (recall if you will, the Lucky Strike account). A prop master I spoke with said that for most real products — cigarettes or otherwise — it’s usually just a matter of contacting the company. Many large companies, he said, are not only used to these requests, they have staff dedicated to answering them. “Sometimes,” he said, “they’ll ask to see a script,” but these requests are almost “always granted,” he said, “unless there is some derogatory context” that the product can be seen in. And with cigarettes, even bad press can be good: Again, smoking on-screen influences people to smoke, and tobacco companies know this.
Herbal or prop cigs don’t have any tobacco or nicotine. They do, however, have some tar content. And the concept that they’re better for you than tobacco cigarettes is debatable: A recent study published in the journal Toxicological Research found that in fact, herbal cigarettes can be toxic, like cigarettes, because of the effects of combustion, i.e., because you smoke them. Smoking anything is pretty controversial when you’re a recovering addict, too: Former smoker (quit nearly 10 years ago) Joel wrote on a quit-smoking forum, “my rule is, don’t smoke anything into your lungs, it is only a gateway to going back.” Whether that’s true or not, many former smokers agree that herbal cigs can be, for some, playing with fire. Like non-alcoholic beer, it really depends on the person.
In the retail world, herbal cigarettes are often sold as quit-smoking aids, though. “Plan a stop-smoking strategy today and live a healthier tomorrow!” says the homepage of Ecstacy Cigarettes, a popular brand of herbal cigarette. “Always keep a pack of HONEYROSE around for social occasions,” says the website of another brand. But really, a lot of their business is in selling herbal cigs to prop masters for use in television and film. Starting in the 1970s, around the time of that legislation limiting advertising of tobacco products, people began to suddenly think about things like second-hand smoke and work environments. It didn’t happen fast: Even into the ’90s, prop masters would call up a tobacco company and get cases of cigarettes to use, often free of charge, in their movies.
But one of the easiest ways to make sure that a certain brand of cigarette gets clearance to be in your movie is to never ask to begin with, and to make up your own. Earl Hays Press is a print-based prop-servicing company that provides all manner of “fake” items for movies. Founded in 1915, it did some of its first work in silent movies and is responsible for a lot of the background printed materials one might see in movies: billboards, signage, newspapers, fliers, generic but branded-“looking” cereals or breads, and cigarettes and alcohol.
One of the longest-standing fake brands of cigarettes, in fact, is claimed by Early Hays Press: It says it invented Morley cigarettes, which were made famous in the 1990s on what Earl Hays Press owner Ralph Hernandez calls “that show on Fox.” TheX-Files. In it, the Cigarette Smoking Man, played by William B. Davis, constantly smokes Morleys, which look just like Marlboros. Morley is sort of a side character — so ever-present is the brand within the show — and it even comes up in a story line.
And after The X-Files, Morley cigarettes have had a real life of their own. They’ve been in so many movies and shows that there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to them. It’s not totally correct, but it’s got the right idea: Morleys show up in Lost; in 24; in American Horror Story. Hernandez told me that Fox at some point “tried to say they invented Morleys,” but the truth is out there: Morleys have been around since at least 1960. Hernandez doesn’t seem sure when Earl Hays Press started making them — “maybe in the ’80s” — he said, but again, they certainly date back, at least, to the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho. So did Earl Hays Press invent Morleys or not?
Over the years, clearly, Morleys have become a sort of in-joke for movie makers and prop masters, as much as they are a cheap way to get a pack of cigs in a shot without having to go through a pain-in-the-ass process of calling up Philip Morris. But it’s perhaps not a coincidence that all of the most famous incidences of Morley use — Psycho, The Twilight Zone, and The X-Files — are well, kind of creepy and mysterious works of art. It almost makes sense, too, that no one really seems totally certain how it all got started.
But one thing is for sure: Where we started off — smoking real cigarettes in fake packages — is not where we’ve ended up. And as long as smoking on-screen, even if only “for pretend,” is legal, we’ll probably always have Morley. But we are left in a really weird place: “Smoking is cool” more in theory these days than in reality. Teen smoking is at an all-time low, and the number of smoking adults is plummeting as the practice is increasingly discouraged in public, banned indoors, and taxed so much as to be unaffordable. Smoking hasn’t really become a “thing of the past,” but it’s certainly a relic of a dumber time, when we kidded ourselves that cigarettes could be “cooling” and “mild.”