At Hackademy Awards, Sacramento-area teens jeer films glamorizing smoking

03/09/2012 12:00 AM

03/13/2012 12:49 PM

Victory meant condemnation for some of the cinematic winners Thursday night at Sacramento's Hackademy Awards.

The 17-year-old gala annually skewers the Oscars as it bestows awards (cough, cough) on the worst movies for glamorizing smoking, as judged by local teens.

Members of the Hackademy conferred the "Thumbs Down" award for the most sinfully smoky movie of 2011 on the animal adventure "Rango."

"This is a fun way to shed some light on a very serious issue," said Kori Titus, CEO of Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, the organization that runs the awards. "Our ultimate goal is protecting kids' health."

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin this week released a report on youth smoking that called tobacco use a "pediatric epidemic" and noted that one in four high school seniors smokes.

Actors Brad Pitt and Emma Stone failed to make appearances in the red-carpet procession at Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium, but both earned "Thumbs Down" awards of their own. The judges dinged Pitt's "Moneyball" for showcasing chewing-tobacco use among baseball players and personnel, and Stone's character in the "The Help" for lighting up like a chimney (albeit in a historical period when that was common).

"Rango" got extra finger-wags because it's an animated film and therefore targeted at children, the judges reasoned. In fact, the teen reviewers determined that nearly all depictions of tobacco use in PG-rated releases – 97 percent – came in three animated movies aimed at young audiences: "Rango," "Hugo" and "The Adventures of Tintin."

"It makes me really angry," said Zaira Chavez, a Hackademy judge and a senior at Sheldon High School in Elk Grove. "It's like tobacco companies are getting small kids and getting them when they're young."

Younger children, she reasons, are more susceptible to thinking, "Oh, my favorite actor is smoking and he looks really cool in the movie, so maybe I should do that too."

Since her freshman year, Chavez has joined an annual corps of about 40 teen volunteers, mostly from Sacramento County, who screen every cinematic release that makes more than $1 million.

Besides punishment, the Hackademy also doles out praise to tobacco teetotaling flicks and actors.

Winners this year included Ryan Gosling, smokeless in three films, and Amara Miller, who complained of secondhand smoke in her role in "The Descendants." The "Thumbs Up" movie was "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," whose pirates pursued their swashbuckling and barhopping entirely tobacco-free.

"If there's no smoking when there should be smoking, like scenes in casinos, I think that's awesome," said Chavez.

The Motion Picture Association of America in 2007 started considering tobacco use in its movie ratings. It notes smoking in its list of vices, along with such behaviors as profanity and violence, for movies including "Rango."

Titus points to a raft of studies showing links between teen smoking and tobacco-heavy cinema. The MPAA argues that those studies don't prove direct cause and effect, but it nonetheless aims to inform parents so they can choose which flicks their kids watch, said spokesman Howard Gantman.

"It is a serious health problem and one our industry should not be encouraging or glamorizing," Gantman said.

Titus hopes the awards will raise children's awareness of the messages movies send.

"We have found that once the awareness is raised, it really helps so that kids aren't influenced by this," said Titus. "They understand they're being manipulated."

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