Smoking in Movies

William B. Davis
Ten Thirteen Productions
20th Century Fox Television

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH – I have no idea who they are), reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC – well known) recently published a study about smoking in the movies. There is concern that smoking in movies influences children, and that voluntary calls to reduce smoking in films has not been completely successful. As a result, the study calls for films depicting smoking to automatically receive an MPAA ‘R’ rating, depending on the context.

Closer to home, and perhaps coincidentally, a group of health officials recently met with members of the Ontario Film Review Board to request that films and video games depicting smoking automatically receive Ontario’s 18A rating, again to reduce children’s exposure to role models smoking.

A doctor with ACSH is critical of this approach, asking if the next step will be to prohibit “fast food, alcohol, fist fights, or bad driving” in movies intended for teen audiences. Well, everything except fast food is already taken into account when establishing the ratings, and from a public policy perspective it might not be so bad to include that. No one saying these things should prohibited in movies, or even that children should not see them – just that children should not see them without an adult making the decision about whether or not the material is appropriate, and prepared to discuss it with the child later.

It’s naive to think that movies are selling only entertainment. Product placement is big business, and a major source of revenue for films. Product placement works because films are influential, and advertisers like a way to promote their product that cannot be easily skipped or ignored. Whether film idols set trends or popularize them may not be clear, but  in the early years of film, cigarette companies paid millions for endorsements. However, we prohibit advertising cigarettes to children without worrying about the effectiveness of the ads. It makes sense to similarly prohibit product placement, even if it is not branded.

Filmmakers, as always, jump on the bandwagon of artistic freedom. Specifically, they claim a need to use cigarettes to “reflect reality.” Since when are films about reality? Everything that appears on screen is chosen or constructed. Background music is chosen and licensed. In many cases, smoking is presented as a quick and easy tag to identify a character as bad, when a little more thought about the character and their presentation might have been just as, or more effective. And yet, I can’t imagine the cigarette smoking man from The X-Files any other way. But no one is talking about a ban – just a rating consideration. Film makers take rating considerations into account when making their films, and if they want that wealthy but easily influenced teen market, it is not unreasonable to expect them to prepare their films accordingly.

This is not just an American concern. Earlier this year China banned smoking movies, with the same concerns about influence and effectiveness. There’s a good article about the issue, with several movies clips, at the 21CB blog.

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