Thursday, February 19, 2004

Movie writer wants to snuff out smoking

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wants to ban smoking onscreen.

And eventually, the cancer survivor and ex-smoker wants to ban it everywhere else.

"It sounds big, but let me point out that heroin is illegal in this country, that drug dealers go to jail and heroin kills about 1,200 people a year," Eszterhas says. "Smoking kills about 440,000 people a year, and tobacco executives don't go to jail. They contribute to political campaigns. I think there's something wrong with that."

He outlines his struggles with cancer, tobacco and the Hollywood machine in his latest book, Hollywood Animal (Alfred A. Knopf; $26.95), released last month.

Eszterhas, 59, is lobbying Hollywood and moviegoers to get cigarettes out of movies, arguing that Hollywood glamorizes what is ultimately a lethal addiction.

He admits he's not having much luck with Hollywood.

"I've made absolutely no headway and I've tried several different means," Eszterhas says. An op-ed piece in the New York Times, a column in Variety and meetings with studio executives have gone nowhere.

He's joined with the Cleveland Clinic for the "Join Joe" campaign, which includes public service announcements in movie theaters and on television urging people "not to get suckered into smoking by Hollywood."

He underwent surgery to have two-thirds of his voice box removed a few years ago after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. In a phone interview from his Bainbridge Township, Ohio, home, his voice ranges from raspy to metallic.

Smoking is rampant in movies, Eszterhas says. It's tempting to assume that tobacco companies are paying filmmakers to place their products, but Eszterhas says he's never seen that "on the studio level" with big budget movies.

"I've been a screenwriter for 30 years and I've made 15 movies, and in many of those movies, I glamorized smoking," he says.

Experts have long debated just how much influence films have on people's decision to smoke. Eszterhas wants smokers to tell the "Join Joe" campaign which film stars influenced them to start smoking. Learn more about the campaign at

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