Smoking in Movies: Uncle Sam to Start Tracking Tobacco Use in Films Aimed at Kids

The action follows a study showing smoking in movies rose in 2011.

Protestors demonstrate against movies that promote smoking to kids worldwide outside the office of the Motion Picture Association of America February 22, 2005, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Federal health authorities said Friday they will begin monitoring how well movie studios are doing to reduce depictions of smoking in movies geard toward kids.

Authorities at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Office on Smoking and Health said that voluntary efforts by movie studios to reduce tobacco use in youth-rated movies have been unimpressive. Data on tobacco use in movies will be added to regular CDC reports to the public on smoking prevalence among youth and adults, total and per-capita cigarette consumption, and progress on tobacco control policies.

"We all have a responsibility to prevent youth from becoming tobacco users, and the movie industry has a responsibility to protect our youth from exposure to tobacco use and other pro-tobacco imagery in movies that are produced and rated as appropriate for children and adolescents," said the lead author of the paper, Dr. Tim McAfee. "Eliminating tobacco imagery in movies is an important step that should be easy to take."

MORE: PG-13 Movies May Start Teens Smoking

Understanding what motivates kids to smoke is a high priority of public-health experts. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 3,800 kids a day smoke their first cigarette. And, while smoking rates have fallen over the past 40 years, rates in both adults and youths have held steady in more recent years.

Previous research shows that kids who see smoking on television and in the movies are more likely to take it up. But depictions of smoking continue to turn up in youth-rated movies. Last year, the number of on-screen smoking scenes increased, according to a study published in the October issue of the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

The data, from Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, a project of  Breathe California-Emigrant Trails, is based on tobacco incidents in top-grossing movies each year rated G, PG and PG-13. The study looked at 134 movies that were among the 10 top-grossing, youth-rated movies last year for at least one week.

The study found the number of tobacco incidents rose three percent (1,881 incidents) in 2011 compared to 2010 despite the fact that there were five fewer movies in the 2011 sample. The number of tobacco incidents per movie rose seven percent over 2010—13.1 incidents per movie in 2010 and 14 last year. The biggest increase in smoking depictions occurred in G and PG movies.

MORE: Smoking Rates Around the World Are Astronomical

And, while kids aren't supposed to see R-rated movies, smoking incidents in those films rose seven percent in 2011, said the author of the study, Dr. Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of medicine for the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. Glantz has been studying smoking in the movies for many years.

"There are going to be hundreds or thousands of kids who will take up smoking due to this backsliding," Glantz told TakePart. "There is a dose response here, too—the more kids see, the more likely they will smoke."

In a report released earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin identified smoking in movies and tobacco-company advertising as the primary forces that cause kids to take up smoking.

"The evidence is sufficient to conclude that there is a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking among young people," the Surgeon General's report noted. Images of smoking in the movies, "are powerful because they can make smoking seem like a normal, acceptable, or even attractive activity. Young people may also look up to movie stars, both on and off screen, and may want to imitate behaviors they see."

MORE: Teen Smoking an 'Epidemic,' Surgeon General Says

Previous studies have also shown that depictions of smoking in the movies are more likely to influence low-risk kids to smoke. "The kids whose parents don't smoke or kids who do well in school," Glantz says.

The increase in on-screen smoking is further disappointing because top officials for three studios—Comcast (Universal), Disney and Time Warner—had previously committed to reductions in smoking in their movies, Glantz says. Smoking in youth-rated movies declined from 2005 to 2010.

Among these companies with stated policies discouraging smoking in movies, the percentage of movies that were tobacco-free declined by 17 percent from 2010 to 2011.

"A few studios had taken the lead in reducing the amount of smoking in their films," Glantz says. "They accomplished it and showed it could be done. But now there is this serious back-sliding. I don't know what accounts for that.  These three studios are now about as bad as the studios that hadn't made a lot of progress. I don't know what happened."

The Walt Disney Company "actively seeks to limit the depiction of smoking in movies marketed to youth," according to a statement released by the company to TakePart.

MORE: U.S. Appeals Court Strikes Down Graphic Cigarette Warning Labels

"Disney discourages depictions of cigarette smoking in movies produced in the United States for which a Disney entity is the sole or lead producer and which are released either as a Touchstone movie or Marvel movie, and seeks to limit cigarette smoking in those movies that are not rated “R” to: scenes in which smoking is part of the historical, biographical or cultural context of the scene or is important to the character or scene from a factual or creative standpoint, or to scenes in which cigarette smoking is portrayed in an unfavorable light or the negative consequences of smoking are emphasized," according to the statement.

The company also said it prohibits tobacco product placement and promotions and will place anti-smoking public service announcements on DVDs of new and newly remastered titles, not rated “R,” that depict cigarette smoking and will work with theater owners to encourage the exhibition of an anti-smoking public service announcement before the theatrical exhibition of any such movie.

But the World Health Organization and other public health groups have recommended formal policies aimed at eliminating smoking in the movies, McAfee noted.

MORE: Teens: Smoking Less, Calling It 'Scummy' More

The Glantz study raises "serious concerns about this individual company approach," he wrote. "This difference suggests that individual company policies may not be sufficient to sustain a reduction in youth exposure to tobacco-use and other pro-tobacco imagery in movies and that more formal, industry-wide policies are needed."

Glantz has long argued for a modernized rating system to give movies with any tobacco use an R rating, unless the presentation of tobacco "clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use," he says. Other options to discourage smoking are to run anti-smoking messages prior to the movie and persuading movie studies to adopt policies to certify they receive no payments for depicting particular tobacco brands in their movies.

"The MPAA has refused to address this issue in a meaningful way by giving movies with smoking an R rating," Glantz says. "They have never rated a single movie R for smoking. The goal here is to get smoking out of the movies being shown to kids."

Question: Should movies that depict smoking receive an R rating? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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