An R rating for smoking in movies: public health or censorship?

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A new study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) commends three major movie studios (Comcast/Universal, Disney, and Time Warner/Warner Bros.) for eliminating the depiction of smoking in youth-rated films by 96 percent since 2005. However, smoking in G, PG, and PG-13 movies has fallen by only 42 percent in the rest of the industry. That s why study author Dr. Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Smoke Free Movies Project, is proposing that all movies that depict smoking except those depicting historical figures or those showing the adverse effects of smoking should automatically receive an R-rating. That rating would likely have a major impact on ticket sales, especially for teenagers.

Though the Motion Picture Association of American considered such a policy in 2007, between 2005 and 2010, youth-rated films still accounted for 54 percent of top-grossing movies with onscreen smoking. In addition, youth-rated films still make up more than 40 percent of smoking impressions delivered to U.S. theater audiences in 2010, and many public health organizations cite a causal relationship between smoking in movies and youth uptake of the habit.

Though he acknowledges that there are clear instances when smoking in movies is not only gratuitous but contrary to the thrust of the character and plot, ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross doesn t think that every single instance warrants an R-rating. "However, if it can be shown that the depiction of smoking in movies has a fairly strong association with youth initiation, then I wouldn t argue against such a policy and all instances where brands are shown need to be eliminated, as do payments from cigarette companies to producers. I must note, however, that Dr. Glantz s assertion (via reference #2 in MMWR) that a study in the journal Thorax supplies such evidence is false.

So what s next? asks ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom. A ban on depicting fast food, alcohol, fist fights, or bad driving in PG-rated movies? This is not a slippery slope; it is more like a slippery cliff. If this policy had been in effect 30 years ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark would have been rated R, and many of us would have missed out on one of the greatest movies ever made. In the quest for safety, you need to be aware of unintended consequences.