Can Putting an “R” Rating on Movies with Smoking Make a Difference?

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Graphic sex scenes, strong and frequent profanity and violence, and explicit hard drug use—depicting those kinds of scenes is a surefire way to earn a film an R rating. In an effort to reduce the number of youths who wind up addicted to cancer sticks, the World Health Organization hopes to add another no-no to the R-rating list: tobacco use.

In a report released on Monday, the public health arm of the United Nations detailed the staggering amount of cigarette smoking in films, including those marketed toward children. It recommended that lighting up be off-limits in movies unless they are rated as being for adults over 18.

The film noir era, when just about every Hollywood star dramatically flicked a cigarette or exhaled clouds of smoke, has been over for nearly 60 years, so what gives with the recommendation? Well, since 2002, incidences of cigarette smoking in film have been on the upswing. The report’s authors found that 59 percent of the top-grossing films released between 2002 and 2014 featured tobacco use. In 2014 alone, 44 percent of all Hollywood films featured smoking, and 36 percent of flicks rated G, PG, or PG-13 had a character puffing on a cigarette.

According to the report, research shows that axing smoking from films that aren’t R rated deters kids from picking up the habit. In 2014, “the U.S. Surgeon General reported that adult ratings of future films with smoking would reduce smoking rates among young people in the USA by nearly one-fifth and avert 1 million tobacco-related deaths among today’s children and adolescents,” according to a statement by the report’s authors.

A 1992 analysis on cigarette use in movies by journalist and film historian Aljean Harmetz in The New York Times also provides an answer. Harmetz shared a revealing anecdote about the influence on teenagers of the romantic, smoke-heavy final scene in the classic 1942 film Now, Voyager.

“ ‘Shall we just have a cigarette on it?’ Paul Henreid asks Bette Davis at the end of the movie before he lights two cigarettes in his mouth and then passes one, still moist and warm from his breath, to her. That offer became the preferred romantic gesture of thousands of high school students that year,” wrote Harmetz.

Indeed, a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that for every 500 smoking scenes a kid sees in movies rated PG-13, the likelihood of that child trying cigarettes increases by 49 percent. It doesn’t take much for scenes to add up. Skyfall, the $1.1-billion grossing James Bond film released that same year, featured about 20 smoking scenes. Then again, it could be argued that most folks going to see a Bond movie don’t expect a G-rated experience.

To that end, along with prohibiting characters in G, PG, or PG-13 movies from smoking, the WHO wants antismoking warnings to show in the previews before all films that have a character using tobacco—and those previews would run on the DVD and on-demand versions of a film too. The health group also asked that movie producers state in the credits that they weren’t compensated for featuring tobacco products in a film.

In 2007 after pressure from various health agencies, the Motion Picture Association of America agreed to include smoking as a factor in its film ratings. That year it said in a statement that it might put labels on films with characters who light up to ensure “specific information is front and center for parents as they make decisions for their kids.” However, the data from the WHO shows that isn’t happening. In 2012, the MPAA said that although teen smoking is a “serious health problem,” it has to balance depictions of tobacco use with “freedom of expression and speech and storytelling.”

In a February 2016 brief from the WHO, Stanton Glantz, the head of the Smoke-Free Movies initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, noted that scenes with frontal nudity and extensive swearing are already excluded from films for kids. “So the creativity argument doesn’t really hold up,” Glantz said.

Folks who complain that bans on cigarettes—or e-cigs—are the nanny state run amok, might wonder, given our supersize obesity problem, why the WHO doesn’t also police pizza and soda consumption in movies. But Paul Garwood, a spokesman for the agency, wrote in an email to TakePart that the WHO isn’t only singling out tobacco.

“WHO takes very seriously all health risks that confront people, particularly children, including avoidable risks, such as exposure to tobacco products,” wrote Garwood. He noted that last week the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity released a startling report on the “exploding nightmare” of obese kids. That report, wrote Garwood, called for preventing “the marketing and promotion of both unhealthy foods, such as those high in sugars and processed fats, as well as preventing exposure to addictive and deadly tobacco products.”

Just as obesity is a global issue, so are deaths from smoking-related cancers. In China, where kids begin lighting up on average at age 11, one-third of young male smokers are on track to die from the negative health effects of smoking. “U.S. films are seen all over the world, so modernizing the rating system to get smoking out of youth-rated films in the U.S. will protect youth all over the world,” said Glantz.

Garwood added that if people don’t want their kids exposed to depictions of smoking in movies, they should exert pressure on public officials and vote with their wallets. Refusing to buy tickets to “films that contain smoking scenes” and ensuring “your children do not watch such films,” can make a difference, wrote Garwood.