Tobacco and Hollywood: Smoking Lights Up the Box Office

By Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, President and CEO of Legacy

There are many reasons why every day in America 3,500 youth try their first cigarette – from their attempt to be rebellious, risky and try new things, to social pressure from friends and peers or even parental smoking. But we cannot ignore the fact that movies are recruiting young people to smoke. Images in movies can be JUST as powerful in promoting tobacco use as traditional tobacco advertisements. As the U.S. Surgeon General concluded in her March report on youth and young adult smoking, there is “a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking among young people.” Smoking images by characters in youth-rated movies like “Rango,” “The Help,” “Water for Elephants ” or “X-Men: First Class” have become one of the most influential risk-factors for teens starting to smoke.

Through the collaborative efforts of several public health organizations and the attorneys general, smoking images in movies have become a top public health priority. The U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have not only confirmed movies’ impact on youth, but also pointed to clear actions that can end this problem. In September, the CDC released a new study showing that youth-rated movies delivered almost twice as many tobacco impressions in 2011 as they did in 2010. According to the study, “Smoking in Top-Grossing US Movies in 2011” released in the CDC journal Preventing Chronic Disease, this reverses a 5-year decline as youth-rated movies delivered more than 10 billion smoking impressions to viewers in 2011.

The attorneys general have an important role to play in this national effort, given that more than a decade ago, they negotiated the Master Settlement Agreement that banned tobacco product placement in film. Yet today, we still see numerous depictions of smoking in popular movies that are rated as suitable for young people (G, PG and PG-13). In a May 2012 letter, 38 attorneys general told the heads of News Corp., Sony, Viacom, CBS and other studios these “concerns are grounded in science,” urging them to adopt policies to end smoking in youth-rated movies. Despite all we know about its impact, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) still carries no rating for smoking – unlike drug abuse, sex, violence and even profane language. For several years, the World Health Organization and numerous public health and health professional organizations have recommended Smoke-Free Movies Policies that would be effective in reducing harm from on-screen tobacco exposure, including assigning an R-rating for new movies that portray tobacco imagery. This policy would leave smoking and other tobacco use out of films designed to be marketed to youth. However, the industry has not adopted this recommendation.

Instead, some movie studios have in recent years created company-specific policies to reduce smoking in their movies. Despite making progress initially, the three major studios with published policies — Disney, Universal (Comcast) and Warner Bros. (Time Warner) — saw the sharpest increases in the number of tobacco incidents per youth-rated movie in 2011, according to the CDC study. This tells us these individual policies that movie studios created in good faith to address this important public health problem are not enough.

Since 2007, the rating system has inconsistently included smoking in its fine-print ratings “descriptors,” which has also been ineffective in providing consistent, accurate or complete information about tobacco in youth-rated films. Instead, an industry-wide R-rating policy addressing this issue has enormous potential to save lives. This is not censorship. The MPAA does not control the content of films, rather, it labels films to allow parents to judge whether or not they want their children to see specific content. Previous research found that 70 percent of adults agree with an R-rating for any movie with smoking.

Given the failure of much of the industry to adopt any smoking policies at all, as well as the questionable effectiveness of the few policies that have been adopted, it appears that the only way to ensure a substantial and permanent reduction in young people’s exposure to on-screen smoking is for the movie industry to adopt a uniform set of policies that apply to all producers and distributors. Until they do so, 180,000 children and teens will light up each year as a result of what they see on the silver screen.

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Cheryl Healton
HEALTON

The Smoke-Free Movies policy solutions include:

  1. Rate any new movie with smoking R
  2. Certify that nothing of value was received in exchange for the depiction of tobacco in a movie
  3. End all brand appearances
  4. Include strong and effective anti-smoking ads before all movies in which tobacco is depicted.