Hollywood is coming under heavy pressure to crack down on smoking in the movies, rattled by a big-money PR campaign and new research showing that teenagers who watch actors light up are significantly more likely to do so themselves.
The entertainment trade paper Variety reported that the Motion Picture Association of America is considering ways to limit depictions of smoking as part of a larger effort to shore up support for the movie ratings system, which has come under criticism almost from its inception nearly 40 years ago. The idea is that where there’s less smoke, there’s less fire.
“There’s a clear link between the percentage of characters who smoke in films and the rate of youth smoking,” Patrick Reynolds, president of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free America, said Tuesday.
A study published last week in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that white teenagers who frequently watch R-rated movies are almost seven times more likely to start smoking than those who don’t.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation at the University of North Carolina, did not find a similar correlation among black teenagers. But two previous studies, in 2003 and 2005, did find one, and the North Carolina team concluded that the three studies demonstrated a strong link between celluloid smoking and teen smoking.
“The tobacco industry has specifically targeted these images to children as young as 12 or 13 years of age,” said Dr. Jonathan Klein, director of the Center on Children and Smoking of the American Pediatrics Association. “Most adolescents who smoke know they’re addicted, and they want to quit, and yet 1 in 3 of these children will go on to die of a tobacco-related illness.”
That’s why the pediatrics academy wants the MPAA to slap an automatic R rating on any new film depicting smoking, he said.
The idea to impose the R rating, which restricts the freedom of children under 16 from seeing certain films, comes from the Smoke Free Movies Initiative at the University of California-San Francisco.
It has been endorsed in a coordinated campaign bankrolled with $500,000 from the American Legacy Foundation, the anti-smoking organization that was created by the 1999 settlement of a massive federal lawsuit against the tobacco companies. In addition to the pediatrics academy, the campaign has been joined by the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and more than a dozen other groups.
Standing up for lighting up
The idea lit up Gary Nolan, a spokesman for the Smoker’s Club, a smoker’s-right group.
“This is political correctness run amok, frankly,” said Nolan, who dismissed evidence of any link between smoking in the media and smoking by youths.
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“As a kid I watched Tom and Jerry, and I watched them throw each other off buildings, throw each other in front of automobiles, beat each other up with hammers and frying pans, and all of that is going to be OK,” Nolan said Tuesday. “But lo and behold, should anyone light up a cigar or a cigarette or a pipe, now we’re in trouble.”
Preventing youth smoking “is not the job of the government or of the motion picture industry, but it is the job of parents, who have the most influence over their children, and I think it’s time to put that responsibility back in their lap,” he said.Learn more about lung cancer
But Reynolds — who happens to be the grandson of tobacco kingpin R.J. Reynolds — cited research suggesting that it was parents themselves who were among the strongest backers of the mandatory R.
That report, published last month by researchers at Dartmouth and Harvard universities and the University of Mississippi, found that 81 percent of U.S. adults believe depictions of smoking on the screen influence adolescents to take up the habit.
More than two-thirds believe films that depict smoking should get the R rating — including 59 percent of adult smokers, the study found.
Reynolds said he applauded the idea of a mandatory R rating, but he said it was probably more practical to seek voluntary restraint from filmmakers, along with the screening of anti-smoking ads before movies and regulatory oversight to ensure that tobacco companies don’t pay production companies to put tobacco branding in their pictures.
That would be fine with Nolan, of the Smoker’s Club, as long as filmmakers aren’t told what to do and smokers like him aren’t marginalized as a matter of formal policy.
“If you want to educate people and tell them not to smoke and explain the dangers of smoking, I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with you,” he said.
Alex Johnson is a reporter for MSNBC.com. Chris Jansing is a reporter and anchor for MSNBC-TV.