Actors Smoking On-Screen: Who Lights Up the Most?

Jump to:
So Who Lights Up Most on the Big Screen?
Genres that Depict the Most Smoking
How Often Does Smoking Appear in Movies?
Some Notable Findings
How Is Smoking Rated?

It’s clear that movies have changed over the decades, and in many different ways. Take smoking, for example. Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the elite were so often seen with cigarettes, cigars, and pipes that they almost seemed like extensions of their bodies; which was no accident. Back then smoking was viewed as a status symbol, and tobacco brands often sponsored film studios. Some actors and actresses even had their own endorsements. Since smoking was such an accepted practice—art imitates life, as they say—and smoking easily made its way to the big screen.

So, when looking at a century’s worth of movie material, which actor takes home the prize for the most smoking on-screen? Admittedly, the landscape of film looks a bit different nowadays—transitioning from big screens and movie palaces to the majority of people snuggling up on their couch with cable TV and streaming services. But the question still stands; so USDish, an authorized retailer of DISH, ran the numbers and discovered the actors and actresses that smoke the most on film.


To determine the number of movies that portray a form of smoking, we looked at films on IMDb (International Movie Database) for each year from 1950 to September 2020. Each movie had to have a rating of 3 stars or more (out of 10) and at least 1,000 votes by IMDb users to ensure the film’s quality. 

The movies featured on IMDb almost always have tags attached. Our analysis included films with the tags related to different methods of smoking. After getting rid of the repeats, we were left with a list of 3,060movies.

  • We considered the number of movies released per year (with a rating of 3 or more and at least 1,000 user votes) to determine the percentage of movies per year that include some form of smoking. 
  • To reach the combined total of the most appearances, we removed repeated titles, since several titles had multiple tags attached and overlapped each other.

So Who Lights Up Most on the Big Screen?

Some movie stars are just synonymous with the image of smoking. Basil Rathborne’s pipe-smoking depiction of Sherlock Holmes remains the immortalized image of the great sleuth. Pierce Brosnan’s smooth-talking Bond character could often be seen with a cigarette in hand. Unsurprisingly, Clint Eastwood topped the list, smoking in a grand total of 15 films (we can hardly think of an Eastwood Western without picturing him chewing on the end of a cigar). Bette Davis bested several of the men, coming in at a cool number 5. Check out the graph below to see who else had a strong smoking presence in film.

Genres that Depict the Most Smoking

You’re much more likely to see smoking in a gangster movie than a Disney flick. And protagonists across the adventure genre tend to be more focused on their quests than smoking in any form. But curiously, the genre that contains the most actors smoking in movies is… comedy, which may be a testament to the difference in popular tropes of past films compared to what we see today.

How Often Does Smoking Appear in Movies?

If the graph below is any indication, an evolution has taken place across the years when it comes to smoking in movies: since 1970, there has been a significant decrease in films with smoking-related tags. The percentage of movies with smoking depicted declined sharply in 1970, plunging from about 28% to less than 10%. In addition to changing societal norms and more assertive healthcare campaigns, the preferences of production companies may have a hand in the changing numbers as well. For example, Netflix tends to be resistant to depictions of smoking in its original movies.

Some Notable Findings

  • In the 1970’s, there was a significant decrease in on-screen smoking, which is attributed to the US banning the broadcast advertising of tobacco products in 1971.
  • Broken down by individual tag by percentage, we found that cigar smoking was the overall most popular category; its highest peak was in 1973 at 24%.
  • The “smoking pipe” tag had the most drastic decline across the selected timespan; it decreased 75% from 1954-1955. The next year (1956), the tag increased by 266%, then decreased by 8% in 1957.
  • “Smoking pipe” was consistently more popular than the regular “smoking” tag. This is most likely due to the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, which claimed that pipe smokers actually lived longer than other types of smokers. This led to a boom in pipe smoking.
  • An article by Marcus Jones titled, “Why Don’t People Smoke Pipes Anymore?” appeared in the June 19, 2014 EA Carey (Europe) Ltd newsletter and provided some insight into the pipe smoking preference in years past, and its steady decline in recent years
    • Jones pointed out that in the early part of the last century, pipe smoking was the norm; the standard form of smoking. Men viewed their pipes as part of their “haberdashery.” Tobacconists designed the pipe to complement a gentleman’s facial structure and his attire. 
    • Many high-class stores carried pipes as a distinct fashion and status statement, not just as a tool for leisurely pleasure.

How Is Smoking Rated?

RatingPercentage of Movies
Not rated18.8%
  • Nearly 54% of the movies analyzed had an R rating.
  • In 2016, there was a ruling rejecting a case that sought to require an R rating for all but very limited depictions of tobacco use.

Any questions?

For any media inquiries, contact USDISH is an authorized reseller of Dish Network.

Image Sources:

Clint Eastwood:
Charles Bronson:
John Wayne:
Basil Rathbone:
Bette Davis:
Robert De Niro:
Nicolas Cage:
Pierce Brosnan:
Sylvester Stallone:
Peter Sellers:
Mark Wahlberg:
Kirsten Dunst:
Barbara Stanwyck:
Meryl Streep:
Keira Knightley:
Marjorie Main:
Elizabeth Taylor:
Jeanne Moreau
Anjelica Huston:
Jennifer Jones:

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