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Miami Vice premiered in 1984 and was the last American television show to glorify smoking.
The death of cigarette ads on television began in the 1980s. The negative health effects of smoking were well known and groups like the American Cancer Society put pressure on networks to cut on-screen smoking from their programs. Even well established TV personalities like Johnny Carson were no longer allowed to light up when the cameras were rolling. NBC took a gamble with their new show, Miami Vice, in which leading man Don Johnson was scripted to be TV’s last heavy smoker.
An article from 1985 in the Montreal Gazette entitled “Don Johnson puffs his way to stardom earning reputation as a ‘classic smoker’” pointed out just how much tobacco use took place in the show:
“Each episode of Miami Vice… is like happy hour, Hustler and PQ National Congress rolled into one hour of Don Johnson chain-smoking.” – Mike Boone
The opening sequence of the first episode introduces us to the world of the Miami narc: a windsurfer dips his head into the ocean, a group of women in bikinis rollerblade down the boardwalk, a ring of break dancers throw down some moves on a street corner and Sonny Crockett, our hero played by Johnson, leans against a wall in a pristine white suit smoking a Lucky Strike cigarette.
No one is cooler than Sonny Crockett. You can tell he means business by the way he drags on his cigarette with a contemptuous glare at the world around him. Sonny works undercover for the vice squad using the alias Sonny Burnett. He spends his days jetting around on a cigarette boat and sleuthing his way through smoke-filled strip clubs and hazy jazz bars. Everyone smokes in the Miami drug trade, but no one as much as Sonny, who goes through a few cigarettes in every scene.
Cigarettes were an essential prop for Sonny’s cocaine pusher persona, but he smoked just as much when he was out of character at the police station. The real reason Sonny smoked is because it was cool. The way he chain-lit his Luckies was relaxed and intimidating at once. He seemed always on edge, but always in control; he knew when he had time to spark a new cigarette and when to spit out the butt and throw a punch or whip out his gun. The only other time Sonny took a break from smoking was for a roll in the hay with his love interest of the week, though he would immediately pull out a fresh cigarette when the deed was done.
“Johnson is one of those classic smokers—Humphrey Bogart defined the style—who can carry on a conversation with a cigarette pasted in the corner of his mouth.” – Mike Boone
Sonny’s smoking didn’t last though. By the second season fans and critics alike were calling for Sonny to kick the habit. At the same time, Don Johnson was beginning to feel the pressure to give up cigarettes in his own life. Whether it was a case of life imitating art or art imitating life, both actor and character began the quitting process throughout season two and by season three they were completely smoke-free.
The life of a narc is filled with stress, but not even Sonny Crockett could stand up to the societal pressure on smoking. In the episode “Nobody Lives Forever,” Sonny announces his first misgivings about his habit. “I gotta give these things up,” he says after lighting a fresh Lucky Strike. His girlfriend Brenda replies, “That’s probably the least dangerous thing you do.”