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Sean Penn and American Spirits in a Vanity Fair feature: blurring journalism and cigarette advertising
  1. R Hanewinkel1,
  2. J R Polansky2,
  3. J D Sargent3
  1. 1
    Institute for Therapy and Health Research, IFT-Nord, Kiel, Germany
  2. 2
    Onbeyond LLC, Fairfax, California, USA
  3. 3
    Dartmouth Medical School, Cancer Control Research Program, Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Lebanon, New Hampshire, USA
  1. R Hanewinkel, Institute for Therapy and Health Research, IFT-Nord, Harmsstrasse 2, 24114 Kiel, Germany; hanewinkel{at}

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Sean Penn is one of the great actors of our time. He is also a heavily addicted smoker, and he uses his real-life smoking to convey independence and rebelliousness. Penn entered the film scene in the early 1980s, and by the mid-1980s, the tobacco industry had identified him as one of the next generation of actors who could be useful in perpetuating the rebel smoker image developed by James Dean and Marlon Brando in the 1950s,1 and perpetuated during the 1960s and 1970s by stars such as John Cassavetes.

Like Penn, Cassavetes had a strong streak of independence; he is considered one of the pioneers of independent film. During the early 1980s, when Penn first started appearing in movies, the tobacco industry was heavily involved in paid product placement, and Cassavetes, to whom Penn dedicated his first movie (The Indian Runner), was an object of these deals. As an example, a 1981 letter from Brown & Williamson’s brand placement agency confirmed that, in exchange for $163 000 (2009 value) paid to the producers of the film Tempest,2 Cassavetes and his wife, the actress Gina Rowland:

“…will both use Barclays cigarettes in such a way …

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  • Funding: Funding was received from the European Commission and Ministry of Health of the Federal Republic of Germany.

  • Competing interests: None.