Smoking in movies down but not yet relegated to the ash heap

Nearly half of the top-grossing films still contain tobacco imagery. The CDC wants movies with any tobacco use to get an R rating.

By — Posted Sept. 6, 2010

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Cinematic scenes of glamorous actors surrounded by clouds of billowing cigarette smoke increasingly are being snuffed out -- even if it's not as fast as the federal government and some anti-smoking groups would like.

Federal health officials have been concerned that such wafting images will influence impressionable adolescent audiences to pick up the habit. After decades of pressure from anti-smoking advocates, the film industry is starting to respond.

An analysis of tobacco use in top-grossing U.S. movies from 1991 to 2009 found that onscreen use rose steadily after the Master Settlement Agreement was signed in November 1998 by 46 state attorneys general and U.S. tobacco companies to settle many tobacco lawsuits. Smoking in movies peaked at 3,967 incidents in 2005 but since has dropped 49% to 1,935 in 2009, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

"It's a very favorable trend," said James D. Sargent, MD, professor of pediatrics and community and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire. "It just shows that when Hollywood becomes aware of a problem, they can fix it."

But whether it's Sigourney Weaver chain-smoking in "Avatar" or Robert Pattinson puffing cooly on a cigarette in "Remember Me," smoking in movies is still prevalent. Nearly half of the nation's 2009 blockbusters contained tobacco imagery, including 54% of popular PG-13 movies, according to the CDC analysis in the Aug. 20 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. More than 99% of scenes with tobacco involved smoking, as opposed to smokeless tobacco.

The report was based on data collected by the anti-smoking group Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails.

A CDC editorial accompanying the report calls on the Motion Picture Assn. of America Inc., which controls the movie rating system, to give an "R" rating to any movies portraying tobacco use. Such a rating means that children 17 and younger should not see the movie unless accompanied by an adult.

The MPAA responded by saying that tobacco use in movies is one of many factors considered in the rating system. Since May 2007, when the MPAA started using smoking in its ratings criteria, about 73% of movies with "even the slightest bit of smoking" are rated R; 21% are PG-13; and 6% are PG, said Howard Gantman, the MPAA's vice president of corporate communications. Some studios have their own policies restricting or eliminating tobacco use in movies marketed to youth.

"Our research shows that parents are very clear to us that they -- not the industry and certainly not the government -- should determine what is appropriate viewing for their kids," Gantman said. "What they want is information, and that is what our ratings system provides."

Kori Titus, chief executive officer of the Breathe California chapter, said changing the rating system wouldn't be censorship. "The rating system was designed by them as a tool for parents to determine whether a movie is appropriate for their children or not," Titus said. "Why wouldn't you want to provide that information to parents?"

Increased risk of addiction

Adolescents who see a lot of onscreen smoking are two to three times more likely to begin smoking than those who don't, according to the CDC report. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 157,300 people in the U.S. will die of lung cancer this year.

"It's the biggest preventable cause of death. It's way more important than anything else movies are rated for," said Dr. Sargent, also co-director of Dartmouth's Cancer Control Research Program.

Some actors, such as Kirk Douglas, refuse to smoke in movies. Bruce Willis, whose character smoked in the first three "Die Hard" movies, decided not to smoke in the latest sequel, "Live Free or Die Hard," because of how it might influence young fans. "They recognize that they are role models," Dr. Sargent said.

Even so, popular movies deliver billions of smoking images to U.S. adolescents, Dr. Sargent said. From 1991 to 2001, the total number of in-theater impressions of smoking from top-grossing films ranged from 30 billion to 60 billion annually but dropped to 17 billion in 2009, according to the CDC report. "It's a very powerful kind of imagery," he said.

Titus said her group has been monitoring smoking in movies since 1988 through its "Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!" project. The group recruits teenage and young adult volunteers who view new releases and count the incidents of tobacco use in a movie.

Congress held hearings on the issue in 2004 and 2007. In May 2008, the MPAA began attaching notes about smoking to the ratings of about 12% of nationally released youth-rated movies containing smoking.

U.S. Reps Edward Markey (D, Mass.) and Joseph R. Pitts (R, Pa.) responded to the CDC report by writing a letter to the MPAA urging further action. "Every day approximately 1,200 young people try smoking for the first time, and approximately 80% of smokers start smoking before the age of 18," the letter said.

Pitts said he's encouraged to see a decline in tobacco use in movies.

"There's a huge sea change in attitudes and awareness," he said.

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External links

"Smoking in Top-Grossing Movies -- United States, 1991-2009," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Aug. 20 (link)

Universal Pictures policy regarding smoking in films (link)

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