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Are Tobacco Companies Still Flying Under the MPAA's Smokescreen?


In May 2007, Dan Glickman, chair of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), announced that on-screen depictions of smoking would be accounted within the determination of a movie's final rating. It was also noted that films would begin to have a statement such as "cigarette smoking" added to the caption that accompanies the rating in cases of pervasive tobacco use or glamorization of the habit.


At the time, I thought the moves being made by the MPAA were reasonable, and didn't agree that a simple depiction of smoking necessitated an R-rating (something that many anti-smoking groups did want to see). As Glickman noted at the time of the announcement, there are many factors to consider when rating a movie, and smoking is only one of them.


However, after viewing the raft of movies that released over the past few summer months -- many of them with young audiences in mind -- I am noticing a trend to "sneak" in a cigarette in a vast number of PG-13 films using methods that fly below the MPAA's "smoke screen."


Usually, if a protagonist or other principal character smokes, the activity is noted in the movies' rating descriptor in a PG-13 or lesser rating. (R-rated movies often contain smoking that is not noted in the captions.) But in the case of secondary or background characters, the ratings board typically doesn't note cigarette use.


So in movies like Lakeview Terrace, Traitor, X-Files: I Want to Believe, Ghost Town and One Missed Call, cigarettes are still in view. The new highly violent action film Max Payne, which won a PG-13 rating, also adds tobacco use to its already overwhelming list of content issues.


Granted, these moments of smoking are just that -- brief moments where a character may be seen puffing on a cigarette -- but we must remember that every decision in a movie is carefully made. Wardrobe choices, makeup techniques and hairstyles are all part of the highly detailed creative process. Don't think for a minute that an on-set extra simply pulls out a cigarette and begins smoking while the cameras are rolling. Someone made a conscious choice to include that cancerous prop in the picture.


Another "loophole" that Glickman added was the idea that the period of time in which a movie is set would also account for how seriously the smoking would be considered.


Yet, it seems we can't have a period movie without cigarette smoking, leading me to believe that this concession is being abused. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a film anticipated by family audiences, yet its 1950s time period allows it to contain smoking by secondary characters without any mention in the rating.


The football feature Leatherheads not only has pervasive cigarette smoking, but even a child is shown puffing on a cigarette in this 1920s set film. The only thing mentioned along with the MPAA's PG-13 rating is "brief strong language." Would it have been too much of a deterrent to also state "pervasive cigarette use, including by a child"?


Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Flash of Genius are two more period films where smoke wafts past any ratings concerns.


In September 2008, tobacco industry documents released after anti-smoking lawsuits revealed many celebrities were paid generous bounties if they puffed on a cigarette. From Spencer Tracy to Joan Crawford, many were paid by the American Tobacco Company to keep cigarette use in the limelight.


While conspiracy theorists may wonder if similar "deals" are being made today, one thing is certain: New movies -- no matter if they are set in the "golden years" of tobacco use or the current day -- are continuing to promote one of our society's greatest and clearest health concerns. Considering we are only looking at PG-13 movies here, and that far more R-rated titles contain tobacco use without regard to ratings restrictions and are easily available to be viewed by minors on home video, it appears that smoke on the silver screen isn't going to blow away any time soon.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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