Despite the health concerns associated with tobacco, there are lots of top TV shows and films that have glamourised smoking.

Why do films and TV feature smoking?

From the start of the silver screen, Hollywood has long been associated with smoking. Characters are still portrayed lighting up in films and TV shows today. Why is there so much smoking on screen? 


Some of the reasons include:

  • Part of the characterisation 

  • Reflects the time period 

  • Creates historical authenticity 

  • Used as part of the plot

  • To create an atmosphere

  • For sex appeal and sophistication 

  • Gives it the cool factor

Everybody used to smoke, right?

The fact is, smoking hasn’t always been considered as such a damaging and terrible habit. In the early 1900s, advertisements actively encouraged people to smoke. Some even featured doctors promoting the health benefits of tobacco products.  


Tobacco companies were also big sponsors of TV shows. They paid thousands to get their products strategically placed to influence the audience to buy them. This was prevented in 1998 when a restriction was placed on the advertisement of cigarettes.  

Do actors really smoke in films and TV shows?

Smoking is bad for you. So, do actors have to light up for real when their role demands it? According to Backstage magazine, actors in stage productions use herbal or fake cigarettes. This is to protect the audience and actors alike from the health risks. The same is true for actors on screen. Today, legislation and laws prevent the use of real cigarettes during filming. 

Which actors smoke real cigarettes?

Not all actors have opted for the fake versions. In the early days of Hollywood, the health risks weren’t widely known. This meant actors used standard cigarettes in their scenes. Famous actors such as James Dean, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich smoked real cigarettes. It has been reported that Rita Hayworth had a 50 smokes a day habit in real life too. Today, plenty of celebrities have managed to quit the habit and live the smoke-free dream.

How do TV shows and films glamourise smoking?

When smoking is linked with cool or dangerous characters it makes it look desirable to smoke. If you are stuck in the midst of a Netflix binge, you are living with those characters, they are your people, you exist in their world. And if that world features smoking, it normalises smoking. We’ve all seen an advertisement that makes us instantly want the product, right? It’s similar to TV and film. You see it, you want it. So cigarettes on screen become cigarettes in your consciousness.

Top TV shows and films that glamourise smoking

Stranger Things

This science fiction drama was first released in 2016. Set in the 80s, Stranger Things features a lot of smoking-related scenes. If you drank a shot every time you saw a character smoking, you’d end up with the worst hangover possible. Life in Hawkins is pretty stressful though, right?

The Walking Dead

Would a zombie apocalypse drive you to tobacco? The horror series The Walking Dead was originally released in 2010. Survivors attempt to remain alive despite the constant threat of zombie attack. Smoking clearly helps to settle the frazzled nerves of the characters.

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black premiered in 2013. We all know cigarettes are used as currency in jail and there’s no getting away from it. Prison and smoking go hand in hand. So it’s no surprise this Netflix comedy-drama features so many characters who smoke. Season 2 saw characters selling cigarettes for $9 each!

Mad Men

The 2007 advertising agency drama Mad Men is set in the 60s. Back then it was usual for most people to smoke. Restaurants, airports, hospitals, movie theatres… nowhere was considered off limits. So cigarettes symbolise the lifestyle during the era. Jon Hamm, the actor playing Don Draper, smoked his way through a whopping 74 cigarettes just shooting the pilot episode. 

Rebel Without a Cause

Set in the 1950s, this black and white film classic, starred James Dean. For this coming of age drama, smoking symbolised rebellion. James Dean’s character was the original Hollywood bad boy. He wouldn’t have been nearly as cool without a cigarette in his mouth. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

This 1961 romantic comedy oozes sophistication. You can’t deny the glamour of Audrey Hepburn smoking. The image of her posing with a long cigarette holder is iconic. It represents the epitome of Hollywood glam and she became a fashion icon as a result. 

Pulp Fiction

Try to imagine Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece movie without the cigarettes. The black comedy crime Pulp Fiction just wouldn’t have the same atmosphere. Uma Thurman’s character, Mia, smokes without shame. The symbol of the cigarette is sexy, dangerous and alluring. 


Released in 1978 and set in the 50s, Grease is a classic musical. The transformation of Olivia Newton-John’s character, Sandy, would not have been complete without the cigarette. John Travolta’s character also might not have had the same appeal without the smokes.


The biographical 1990 film revolves around the gangster underworld of Brooklyn. Many people regard it as one of the greatest films ever made. Scenes of smoking cigarettes and cigars feature throughout the film and the smoke adds to the threatening atmosphere. 

The Umbrella Academy

This violent 2019 Netflix series portrays smoking in every episode. The Umbrella academy features a band of adopted superheroes trying to prevent the apocalypse. Admittedly this is a somewhat stressful situation, but does it really demand smoking in the majority of scenes? 

Fight Club

This 1999 film stars Brad Pitt. His character, Tyler Durden, smokes excessively throughout. Here, it portrays the character’s disillusionment with life and the lack of interest he has in his survival. 

Are there any rules about onscreen smoking?

If smoking is included in films, it affects the age rating. For example, a character smoking in Fantastic Mr Fox prevented it from having a universal rating and it was given a PG instead.


The Screen Actor’s Guild has very strict rules about smoking. It produces guidelines that prevent the use of smoking in the workplace. This means most cigarettes on screen will be of the herbal kind. This means they don’t contain any tobacco, nicotine or tar. Instead, they include herbs and plant material. For example, corn silk, rose petals and clover leaves.


It’s easy to spot an actor who hasn’t experienced cigarette smoking IRL. They tend to inhale briefly then puff out more smoke than they inhaled. 

What’s the issue with onscreen smoking?

Times have changed. Smoking cigarettes is less socially acceptable than it was in the past. Understanding the health risks associated with tobacco as well as the changes in smoking laws mean that smoking is portrayed more on screen than in real life.

According to the US Surgeon General, young people who are exposed to smoking onscreen are between two and three times more likely to take up smoking themselves. 


Since 1998, legislation prevents cigarette product placement on the big screen. More recently, Disney banned the depiction of smoking in all movies in 2015.

According to a study described in the Journal of Neuroscience, watching smokers on screen activates areas of the brain responsible for nicotine addiction. This is another reason why it’s difficult for smokers to quit in the first place or suffer a relapse. If the craving strikes during a screen binge, don’t give in! Puff on your Ripple+ instead. Plant-powered peace of mind is sure to follow.