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In 2007 The Walt Disney Company announced they would no longer depict smoking in any of their movies. As well, they would now place anti-smoking public service announcements on DVD’s for all previously made Disney movies that feature smoking– this applies to the majority of Disney cartoons made before 2000.
Walt Disney’s signature creation, Mickey Mouse, was already smoking by his second film, The Gallopin’ Gauncho, released in 1929. In the opening scene, Mickey arrives at a Cantina via ostrich ride and attempts to woo the dancing senorita Minnie Mouse by lighting a cigarette with his toes and blowing an impressive row of smoke rings. It’s hard to imagine the beloved children’s idol Mickey Mouse lighting up in a modern cartoon, but the film was far from controversial for its time. Everyone was smoking in the 20s. Walt Disney was a well known chain smoker for his entire adult life and remained so up until his death in 1966 from lung cancer, 2 years after the Surgeon General’s first warning about the negative health effects of cigarettes.
In the 1980s, Disney took a more conscientious approach to their stance on smoking. In 1981 they released the educational animated short Smoking: The Choice is Yours, in which a young cowboy named Edgar working at the Smokey Mountain Dude Ranch considers taking up cigarettes to look manlier and gain the respect of the resort’s clientele. Edgar realizes smoking is bad for his health through a dream involving a kangaroo court of smokers debating non-smokers. He then convinces everyone else to quit the habit, even changing the resort’s name to the No-Smokey Mountain Dude Ranch. Although the moral is clearly that smoking is wrong, the general message of the short is that smoking needs to be a personal decision, “the choice is yours.”
Smoking in animated movies is often used to portray evil, demonstrating character traits that would usually require violence or coarse language: Cruella De Vil carries a long ebony cigarette holder, The Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland blows imposing smoke letters from his hookah and Captain Hook impressively puffs on two cigars at once. Smoking is also used to demonstrate a character’s fall from grace, like Jon from Peter Pan or Pinocchio, who turn completely green after trying their rebellious first puff.
Tobacco use is not exclusive to evil characters though. Many good characters suck on pipes to portray wisdom, or chew on giant stogies to demonstrate street sense. Genie from Aladdin teaches a lesson in romance by smoking a cigarette while imitating a French beatnik.
In 1999 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a research article entitled Tobacco and Alcohol Use in G-Rated Children’s Animated Films. The study reviewed 50 animated films released between 1937 and 1997. It was found that 52% of Disney cartoons contained smoking and of those, 82% portrayed smoking in a favourable light.
There will never be another smoking character in a Disney movie, good or bad. This means no detectives with pipes, no business men with cigars, and no beatniks with cigarettes. These archetypes will have to continue on without their iconic tobacco props.