Taking it in: From Sherlock Holmes to the one and only Ajit, the Bollywood baddie

Research shows that those more exposed to tobacco imagery across the media — particularly the young — are twice as likely to start smoking

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 16 Dec 2021, 11:55 PM

The number of smokers globally has dwindled in recent decades, as blanket messages about its impact on health get through, but tobacco imagery portraying it as glamorous and rebellious continues across the media, mostly subtly, still contributing to its normalisation and rationalisation. Research shows that those more exposed to tobacco imagery across the media — particularly the young — are twice as likely to start smoking. Here is a look at how smoking features in popular culture, old and new:

Sherlock Holmes:

The symbol of masculinity in late-Victorian England, he is the most famous smoker in literature. Besides detection skills, he was also known for his love of a good pipe. Holmes famously owned three pipes for his smoking: one made from clay, one from briar-wood and the other from cherry-wood. His silhouette portrait invariably includes the pipe. He would use his pipe during contemplative moments, while cigarettes would be reserved for moments of agitation when he would pace across the drawing room. Dr Watson, his assistant, was also known to enjoy pipe-smoking.

Bertie Wooster and Jeeves:

Cigarettes and smoking feature prominently in the PG Wodehouse’s 1922 short story Bertie Changes His Mind. Narrated from the perspective of Jeeves, at one point in the story Bertie finds Jeeves smoking by the car and having lost his cigarette case, asks to smoke one of Jeeves’. It is arranged for Bertie to address an audience of young girls, and Jeeves is later told that some girls were found smoking cigarettes given by Bertie.

Humphrey Bogart:

Bogie played the toughest of the tough guys in Hollywood films, where his characters smoked, drank, picked fights, and always got the girl. Before he passed away in 1957, he took smoking to an all new level of popularity. The tough guys he portrayed, such as Duke Mantee, Sam Spade, Roy Earle and Rick Blaine invariably had a cigarette. His reel life characters seemed unaffected by smoking, but in real life he was a heavy smoker and drinker. He developed esophageal cancer in 1955.


One of the most influential items of popular culture, Hindi films have long featured smoking, from the time of thespian Ashok Kumar to Shah Rukh Khan (the number of smokers in India is estimated to be over 250 million). Smoking and curling smoke invariably formed the backdrop when villains appeared on the scene, particularly Ajit, who sparked a brand of humour, while delivering dialogues such as ‘Sara shehar mujhe Loin ken nam se janta hai’, or while addressing sidekicks ‘Raabert’ and Mona.

US television:

Recent research in the United States by campaign group Truth Initiative shows that young people with high exposure to tobacco images in television shows were three times as likely to start vaping compared to peers with no such exposure. While smoking in movies is long linked to cigarette use, the research shows a link between exposure to tobacco content in episodic content on streaming, broadcast and cable platforms and subsequent tobacco use among the young. The research mentions programmes such as Big Bang Theory, Daredevil, Once Upon a Time, American Horror Story, Modern Family, Fuller House, Orange is the New Black, The Walking Dead, and Stranger Things.

Women smokers in films

The representation of smoking in films has long been a male bastion, but increasingly leading women characters smoke, given the changing conceptions of respectability and the role of commerce in the transformation of gender roles in society. Experts say the cigarette became important in the signification of new public expressions of womanhood: a process that gained pace during the Edwardian and inter-war decades. Significant Hollywood films include Sin City, Chinatown, Ride or Die, The Deep Blue Sea, Queen & Country, Murder Most Foul, and Smokey and the Bandit.

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