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Hollywood’s “Smoking” Hot December


Record box office takes in 2009 should have studios overflowing with glee -- especially in the wake of an economic recession. But the cash registers aren’t the only thing smoking in theaters. On the screen itself we at Parent Previews have noticed a definite increase in the number of movies portraying cigarette use.


I have written about the MPAA’s supposed determination to report smoking in movies in the past in both 2007 (when they announced movies with smoking would have a note in the ratings description) and in 2008 when it was evident the board was ignoring many “background” depictions of tobacco use.


For those who don’t remember (including members of the MPAA’s classification administration), the association promised to take smoking into greater account when assigning ratings to movies. While many outside the film industry were suggesting any tobacco use should warrant an R-rating, the MPAA instead promised to note any smoking use in the ratings descriptor and possibly assign a more restrictive rating (for example, PG-13 instead of PG) for movies with smoking in them.


I can personally verify little has changed, and in fact some of these promises simply have not been kept. On top of that, smoking is more prevalent in movies during the past few months than ever before. In fact, looking at all the movies we have reviewed at Parent Previews since the start of December 2009, every single PG-13 movie except for one (Clint Eastwood’s Invictus) have contained at least brief cigarette use. In addition, one PG movie contained smoking (The Young Victoria).


Of those nine PG-13 and single PG films with people lighting up, only five of them noted smoking within the rating’s descriptor for the movie. Even worse, of the four that did not contain a reference to smoking in the rating’s descriptor, one of them -- The Lovely Bones -- featured a teen using cigarettes.


It’s difficult to not assume the motion picture industry is still highly motivated to include cigarette use in movies. Why? We can only speculate, but we certainly know this -- tobacco companies are being strangled and they are desperate to find any opportunity they can to get their products in front of audiences. Frankly, I think the MPAA is worried that if they noted smoking in the descriptor for every movie that had a cigarette in it, the public would see how obvious this problem is.


It’s also worth noting that in R-rated films, I have personally never seen a movie that includes any mention of smoking in the descriptor. Yet smoking is just as prevalent in R-rated movies, and young people have easy access to them on home video. One fine (sarcasm noted) example of an R-rated film that will have many youth interested in the home video version is the recent theatrical release of Youth In Revolt which -- amongst many other negative issues -- portrays a troubled teen’s cool alter ego constantly sucking on a cigarette.


We need to be concerned about the portrayals of cigarette use because teens can be influenced by what they see on screen. In 2003, the results of a study from Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire confirmed this relationship. This was followed up by yet an even more recent study at Dartmouth that suggests media portrayals of smoking affects even younger children.


With MPAA head Dan Glickman announcing his resignation this week, this may be the perfect time for parents to write to the association and demand that smoking in movies be dealt with more aggressively. Countless other industries -- bars, restaurants, sports arenas, shopping malls and thousands of other workplaces -- have been affected by bans on tobacco use. Why should the film industry continue to be exempted from what is well recognized and known to be one of the leading causes of death in our society?


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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