Perhaps prime time should come with a surgeon general's warning. This past season, cigarettes lit up the small screen in the hands of Maura Tierney's nurse Abby on ''ER,'' ''The West Wing'''s President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), James Marsters' Spike on ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' Tyne Daly's now-on-the-patch Maxine on ''Judging Amy,'' and even animated cigar chomper Bender on ''Futurama.''
It used to be that puffing was confined to TV's bad guys. (Think of ''The X-Files''' Cigarette-Smoking Man.) No more. In fact, a 2001 review of TV episodes by the American Lung Association found that tobacco appeared an average of four times per hour, up from 2.7 times in 1999. Complains ALA program manager Shelley Mitchell, ''I don't think taking the cigarettes out of these characters' hands would diminish them.''
Producers typically defend each butt -- to bolster a mood, character flaw, or general realism. ''Spike's smoking is absolutely iconic,'' says ''Buffy'' executive producer Marti Noxon. ''None of our heroic characters do it, and it's definitely something we see as a thing that only the evil partake in. For better or worse, cigarette smoking still seems like a rebellious thing.'' (Of course, the undead don't worry much about cancer.) Adds ''ER'' exec producer Jack Orman, ''We depict it in a negative light. Abby had relapsed into drinking again. It's part of a pattern of behavior.''
But if it's gritty realism TV seeks, ALA spokeswoman Stacey Long has a suggestion: ''They should be adding yellow teeth and all the other physical effects of smoking when they're in hair and makeup.''