Tobacco in Media
Oppenheimer’s Cillian Murphy Bunt Out on Prop Cigarettes

Oppenheimer’s Cillian Murphy Bunt Out on Prop Cigarettes

We’re very familiar, especially here at Breathe California Sacramento Region, with the dangers of smoking cigarettes. We know that cigarettes can cause disability, disease, and death, so much so, that 110 Californian’s die every day at the hands of the tobacco industry. From research in recent years, we also know that frequent exposure to tobacco on screens make youth three times more likely to start vaping. We even run a volunteer program called Smoke-Free Screens that focuses on screening popular movies, tv shows, music videos, and online content for tobacco imagery, then report that data to the Smoke-Free Media website, What we don’t spend a lot of focusing on, however, are the prop cigarettes and tobacco that is being used in the filming of the media that we review or the health impacts of those products.

That is until Cillian Murphy recently stated in an interview that he was tired of playing the role of heavy smokers, declaring, “my next character will not be a smoker, they can’t be good for you. Even herbal cigarettes have health warnings now”. Murphy plays heavy smoker, Thomas Shelby, in the BBC series Peaky Blinders and has consumed an estimated 18,000 prop cigarettes throughout the show’s six season run, or 3,000 prop cigarettes every season. In Oppenheimer, Murphy plays scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer who was another heavy smoker. The real J. Robert Oppenheimer smoked around 100 cigarettes a day and died from throat cancer at age 62. According to our analysis, the Oppenheimer movie showed cigarettes 104 times and pipes 33 times, totaling 137 instances of tobacco throughout the movie. This leads to 4,187,063,090 tobacco impressions on the public – based on the number of views that film has received at the time of publishing our review. Both Murphy and his co-star, Emily Blunt, use cigarettes in the film.

Murphy isn’t the first actor to have issues with the tobacco his character used. Benedict Cumberbatch suffered from nicotine poisoning while filming The Power of the Dog where he plays Phil Burbank, a rancher in 1920s Montana who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, sharing “Filterless rollies, just take after take after take … When you have to smoke a lot, it genuinely is horrible”. Gary Oldman also contracted nicotine poisoning after smoking an estimated $20,000 worth of cigars portraying Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Oldman explained the choice to use real cigars over prop cigars stating, “There’s no way of avoiding it, really. They don’t make the fake cigars, they don’t burn the same way”.

While the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) has strict guidelines around actors working in smoke, there are no restrictions on whether real or prop tobacco products are used. According to SAG-AFTRA employment contracts contain a check-box to indicate if the project requires work in smoke and the producer must provide each performer with a Material Specification Data Sheet that lists any hazardous materials or products. Actors may still make the choice to use real tobacco products in some productions. Many productions chose to use prop tobacco products, which seem like they would be less dangerous than the real thing. Most prop tobacco products, especially cigarettes, are typically made with herbs and plants like ginseng, vanilla, clover, marshmallow leaves, rose petals, and lavender. However, just like real cigarettes, these herbal alternatives still produce tar, carbon monoxide, and other carcinogenic toxins. They can also irritate the lungs and throat, just like their tobacco counterparts. There is much less research on the long-term health effects of smoking herbal cigarettes or excessive use like actors may experience.

Cillian Murphy’s distaste for playing characters who are heavy smokers is encouraging and we hope to see more actors making that choice as well. Over 60% of the most popular TV shows with 15–24-year-olds in 2021 contained depictions of tobacco use, as well as nearly half (47%) of top-rated films in 2021, 17 of which were rated PG or PG-13. Movies that contain frequent depictions of tobacco use, like Oppenheimer, are influencing youth to start smoking and vaping at higher rates and it is up to the entertainment industry leaders and actors to reduce the amount of tobacco on screens.

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