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Joe Eszterhas speaks out on Hollywood's responsibility for smoking deaths

The New York Times
August 9, 2002

Hollywood's Responsibility for Smoking Deaths

CLEVELAND — I've written 14 movies. My characters smoke in many of them, and they look cool and glamorous doing it. Smoking was an integral part of many of my screenplays because I was a militant smoker. It was part of a bad-boy image I'd cultivated for a long time — smoking, drinking, partying, rock 'n' roll.

Smoking, I once believed, was every person's right. Efforts to stop it were politically correct, a Big Brother assault on personal freedoms. Secondhand smoke was a nonexistent problem invented by professional do-gooders. I put all these views into my scripts.

In one of my movies, "Basic Instinct," smoking is part of a sexual subtext. Sharon Stone's character smokes; Michael Douglas's is trying to quit. She seduces him with literal and figurative smoke that she blows into his face. In the movie's most famous and controversial scene, she even has a cigarette in her hand.

I'm sure the tobacco companies loved "Basic Instinct." One of them even launched a brand of "Basic" cigarettes not long after the movie became a worldwide hit, perhaps inspired by my cigarette-friendly work. My movie made a lot of money; so did their new cigarette.

Remembering all this, I find it hard to forgive myself. I have been an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings. I am admitting this only because I have made a deal with God. Spare me, I said, and I will try to stop others from committing the same crimes I did.

Eighteen months ago I was diagnosed with throat cancer, the result of a lifetime of smoking. I am alive but maimed. Much of my larynx is gone. I have some difficulty speaking; others have some difficulty understanding me. I no longer have the excruciating difficulty swallowing or breathing that I experienced in the first months after my surgery.

I haven't smoked or drank for 18 months now, though I still take it day-to-day and pray for help. I believe in prayer and exercise. I have walked five miles a day for a year, without missing even one day. Quitting smoking and drinking has taught me the hardest lesson I've ever learned about my own weakness; it has also given me the greatest affection and empathy for those still addicted.

I have spent some time in the past year and a half in cancer wards. I have seen people gasp for air as a suctioning device cleaned their tracheas. I have heard myself wheezing horribly, unable to catch my breath, as a nurse begged me to breathe. I have seen an 18-year-old with throat cancer who had never smoked a single cigarette in his life. (His mother was a chain smoker.) I have tried not to cry as my wife fitted the trachea tube that I had coughed out back into my throat. (Thankfully, I no longer need it.)

I don't think smoking is every person's right anymore. I think smoking should be as illegal as heroin. I'm no longer such a bad boy. I go to church on Sunday. I'm desperate to see my four boys grow up. I want to do everything I can to undo the damage I have done with my own big-screen words and images.

So I say to my colleagues in Hollywood: what we are doing by showing larger-than-life movie stars smoking onscreen is glamorizing smoking. What we are doing by glamorizing smoking is unconscionable.

Hollywood films have long championed civil rights and gay rights and commonly call for an end to racism and intolerance. Hollywood films espouse a belief in goodness and redemption. Yet we are the advertising agency and sales force for an industry that kills nearly 10,000 people daily.

A cigarette in the hands of a Hollywood star onscreen is a gun aimed at a 12- or 14-year-old. (I was 12 when I started to smoke, a geeky immigrant kid who wanted so very much to be cool.) The gun will go off when that kid is an adult. We in Hollywood know the gun will go off, yet we hide behind a smoke screen of phrases like "creative freedom" and "artistic expression." Those lofty words are lies designed, at best, to obscure laziness. I know. I have told those lies. The truth is that there are 1,000 better and more original ways to reveal a character's personality.

Screenwriters know, too, that some movie stars are more likely to play a part if they can smoke — because they are so addicted to smoking that they have difficulty stopping even during the shooting of a scene. The screenwriter writing smoking scenes for the smoking star is part of a vicious and deadly circle.

My hands are bloody; so are Hollywood's. My cancer has caused me to attempt to cleanse mine. I don't wish my fate upon anyone in Hollywood, but I beg that Hollywood stop imposing it upon millions of others.

Joe Eszterhas is a screenwriter and the author of "American Rhapsody."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


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