A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Do non-smoking actors use fake cigarettes when playing a part?

June 29, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

Is there an herbal, or at least non-cancerous, cigarette non-smoking actors use while on camera?

The short answer is yes and no: A wide variety of products can be substituted for tobacco cigarettes if a nonsmoking actor is asked to play a smoker in a film or play. Most of them suffer from certain defects of verisimilitude, however. More importantly, there's no such thing as a noncarcinogenic smoke.

In live theater, it's easier to fake this sort of thing because we expect the presentation to be stylized to some degree and we're more forgiving if something is not strictly realistic. Also, the audience tends to be farther away from the performer, so we don't get as clear a view of the prop. Sometimes faking it is as easy as using a real cigarette but not lighting it. For whatever reason, we accept an unlit cigarette on stage in much the same way we know but don't care that the fancy crystal decanter is actually full of iced tea instead of bourbon.

Alternatively, property houses and joke shops offer fake cigarettes that can be filled with a light powder; the actor either blows gently on the cigarette or carefully sucks in some of the powder and immediately blows it out. When done correctly, the particulate cloud vaguely, but imperfectly, resembles smoke. Some versions include a tip of red Mylar (shiny foil-like material), which reflects light and appears to glow. For a little more money you can get a model with a light-emitting diode (LED) that glows when the actor presses a switch, although in my experience that's more trouble than it's worth.

These methods aren't practical in film because the audience doesn't have the same tolerance of stylized reality on screen that it does on stage. With the camera so close, and the image projected at an enormous scale, any deviations from realism are immediately apparent. When an actor smokes on camera, an actual cigarette or a close facsimile is required.

Actors who aren't tobacco users can choose from one of the many herbal cigarettes on the market. (Generally, advertising for these products targets tobacco smokers who are having trouble quitting or people who want to look cool and fit in but want something healthier than tobacco, pitches that have raised eyebrows at enforcement agencies, as you might expect.) Herbal cigarettes are made with various supposedly innocuous substances, including clover flowers, marshmallow leaves, and rose petals, and may be infused with ginseng, vanilla, menthol, or other substances to improve the taste - which, it must be said, is often surprisingly nasty for the first-time smoker.

And yes, herbal cigarettes are used in the entertainment industry for the very purpose you're asking about. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of a nonsmoking actor using a herbal substitute is William B. Davis, who plays the nefarious Cigarette Smoking Man on "The X-Files" in its various incarnations. He was formerly a smoker, which accounts for his familiarity and dexterity with the prop; however, he quit many years before getting the role and opted for herbal rather than resume his habit. Google also found me an interview with Tonya Crowe from "Knot's Landing," of all people, complaining about the taste of the herbal cigarette she was given when her character needed to smoke a joint in a scene.

Two points are worth making about actors and smoking: First, if a role requires an actor to smoke, this is frequently mentioned in the audition notice, so nonsmoking actors tend to filter themselves out, so to speak. Second, from a health perspective, the best herbal cigarette available isn't much better than the tobacco version - you're still burning plant material and sucking the smoke into your lungs. Herbal cigarettes are just like tobacco in that they produce tar, carbon monoxide, and other unhealthful stuff when smoked. Sure, by smoking herbal you avoid nicotine, the addictive component of tobacco, plus whatever chemical additives the tobacco companies are using, but you're still consuming known carcinogens.

So if herbal isn't that much healthier, why bother? Well, the short duration of the typical acting job (a featured television gig being a rare exception) means the cancer risk from occasionally puffing on a herbal smoke is low. Staying away from nicotine is always a good idea, and herbals can be tolerated with relative ease in the short term and won't cause addiction after a few weeks or months.

A possibly more important consideration is psychological. In my observation, the typical nonsmoker imagines that sucking on a cigarette is much fouler than it really is (when done properly, of course; a first-time smoker will often choke on a too-heavy drag), and further imagines that said foulness is significantly reduced by a herbal variant. In fact the practical difference between the two smokes is slight, aside from the nicotine, but smoking a "real" cigarette is still a major mental hurdle for the nonsmoker to overcome.

Finally, speaking as a trained actor, I should point out that the key to realistic smoking on stage or on screen is not the cigarette itself but how the performer uses it. The inexperienced smoker is immediately identifiable by the degree of attention he devotes to handling the pack, fumbling the cigarette out of it, and then carefully applying a flame to the tip. A real smoker has performed these actions thousands of times and does them automatically; a nonsmoker has to think about each step, an uncertainty we in the audience can clearly see. Nonsmoking actors also tend to smoke too frequently, lifting the cigarette to their lips for a puff between every line of dialogue, instead of just holding it half-forgotten off to the side the way a real smoker does. I would suggest that if you find yourself thinking about whether or not a cigarette on screen is "real," you aren't noticing anything odd about the cigarette itself, but rather something about the actor's performance that causes you to subconsciously recognize him as a nonsmoker. A stage actor who knows what he's doing could use a white dowel instead of an unlit cigarette, and you'd probably accept it without undue hesitation.

So yes, there are workarounds when a nonsmoking actor is required to light up for a part, but the more realistic the substitute, the less difference there is in terms of health effects from the genuine article. Those are the sacrifices we artists must make for the privilege of wrapping our mouths around David Mamet's delicious dialogue.

Sources and related material:

Fake cigarettes for sale

Actor William B. Davis briefly discusses his herbal cigarettes

Herbal cigarettes are unhealthy

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