Tobacco use in silent film: precedents of modern-day substance use portrayals

J Community Health. 2007 Dec;32(6):413-8. doi: 10.1007/s10900-007-9058-4.


Much research has been done into tobacco use portrayals in film since the mid-twentieth century, but the earlier years of Hollywood history have been overlooked. Yet the first decades of the twentieth century saw annual per capita cigarette consumption increase from under 100 in 1900 upto 1,500 in 1930. The current study looks at frequency and context (gender, age range, socioeconomic status, type of portrayal) of tobacco use in 20 top-grossing silent films spanning the silent feature era (1915-1928). The sample averaged 23.31 tobacco uses per hour. Tobacco use was most often associated with positive characterizations, working/middle class status, masculinity, and youth. Previous research has verified the influence of the film industry on tobacco consumption in modern years, and this potential connection should not be ignored for the silent film era. Top-grossing silent films set a precedent for positive media portrayals of substance use that have persisted to the present day.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motion Pictures / statistics & numerical data*
  • Motion Pictures / trends
  • Public Health / trends*
  • Smoking / trends*
  • Social Class*
  • Time Factors