From Clint Eastwood’s iconic cigars to Audrey Hepburn’s elegant cigarette holder, actors smoking on the silver screen has long been a part of the Hollywood aesthetic. But since smoking is known to cause health issues, many viewers wonder whether actors use real cigarettes on camera, or if it’s all smoke and mirrors. If you’ve ever wondered about the legitimacy of onscreen smoking—or are curious to know if there are alternatives—keep reading.
“A League of Their Own” Credit: Anne Marie Fox/Prime Video
Entertainment and tobacco: what a drag. Smoking is often used in acting performances to flesh out a character or setting, particularly to signify a sense of sophistication, historical authenticity, or rebelliousness. In theatrical performances, actors have long used fake or herbal cigarettes in smoking scenes due to public health concerns. Throughout most of Hollywood cinematic history, however, actors smoked real tobacco products on set. Humphrey Bogart, John Travolta, Rita Hayworth, James Dean, and Marlene Dietrich are just some of the big-name stars known to have performed with a real cigarette in hand.
The ban on broadcast advertising of smoking and tobacco products in the 1970s caused an immediate, notable decrease in smoking onscreen. But those numbers shifted once more in the 1980s, when tobacco companies began to establish product placement campaigns with major Hollywood studios. The 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement and other public safety initiatives burned the overt marketing connection between tobacco and entertainment. Still, realistic (and unsponsored) depictions of smoking continue to be prevalent on TV and in film.
“The Offer” Credit: Nicole Wilder/Paramount+
Today, actors usually approximate smoking onscreen with prop movie cigarettes, or cigarettes that don’t contain tobacco or nicotine. These herbal cigarettes usually contain marshmallow root, passion flower, cloves, or jasmine. Actors who have never smoked before may need to use their acting chops to make their herbal cigarette smoking look like they’re old hands at puffing. They also may need to learn to hide a grimace; following his extensive use of prop cigarettes while filming “Mad Men,” Jon Hamm said that the burning herbal concoction tastes “like a mix of pot and soap.”
Because they lack nicotine, prop cigarettes are thought to be less addictive than real cigarettes. Their external appearance is nearly identical to real cigarettes, and even when cut open, they can still fool the naked eye. However, prop cigarettes don’t produce as much smoke as real cigarettes, so sometimes sets approximate smoky environments through the use of prop smoke.
“Joker” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
While prop cigarettes do not contain active substances tobacco and nicotine, they still emit carcinogens and toxins. According to Federal Trade Commission staff attorney Matthew Gold, “Any kind of cigarette you smoke has tar and carbon monoxide, which have very real health hazards associated with them.” In fact, studies indicate that the risk of serious health effects of herbal cigarettes may be no lower than those caused by real cigarettes.
Beyond long-term health hazards, prop cigarettes can also cause immediate physical issues such as coughing, shortness of breath, and hoarseness. Smoking while shooting “Mad Men” had a big impact on Hamm’s voice. “You can hear from my voice that it’s a debilitating endeavor,” he said of the dozens of prop cigarettes he lit up per episode.
Prop vapes that do not contain nicotine or tobacco but still emit smoke are sometimes used to protect actors—like onscreen vapers Johnny Depp, Milla Jovovich, and Kate Winslet—from harmful carcinogens. However, vapes may contain other ingredients, such as ultra-fine metals that can be dangerous to the body.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” Courtesy Produzioni Europee Associate
SAG-AFTRA has strict guidelines about the use of cigarettes on set. Auditions must state whether smoking is required, and every employment contract includes a section that indicates whether an actor will be working in any kind of environment with smoke, including the artificial kind. Union contracts guarantee actors additional daily compensation for working with smoke. Producers must also provide every performer working around prop cigarettes with a Material Safety Data Sheet. Because of these regulations, many productions use prop cigarettes and prop smoke to create the illusion of real smoking.
“Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” Courtesy Sony Pictures
After the U.S. surgeon general released a report indicating a direct causal link between watching smoking in movies and youth smoking, several U.S. senators asked the Motion Picture Association to “take action to reduce youth exposure to smoking imagery, including e-cigarette depictions, in youth-rated movies and ensure responsible and consistent practices in rating youth movies with tobacco imagery.”
However, the MPA has gone back and forth in its response, and its current classification and rating rules do not include smoking as an element. Advocacy groups such as Smoke Free Media, Undo, and Truth Initiative are fighting to turn that around. The issue is even prevalent on streaming platforms, with shows such as “Stranger Things” and “Orange Is the New Black” as top contenders for most instances of smoking. Truth Initiative President and CEO Robin Koval told USA Today that “as all of us are watching, nobody was paying attention to the fact that tobacco imagery is all over this content. We’re really concerned.”
To alleviate this concern, many platforms, broadcast networks, and studios are making the move to only allow smoking onscreen if the practice is being condemned, and choosing to factor smoking into their content ratings systems.