Skip to main content

Smoking Under Fire

Armed with a half-million-dollar grant and a new political party in power on Capitol Hill, anti-smoking activists are unleashing a major grass-roots campaign on the motion-picture industry and TV broadcasters to keep smoking out of the reach of children.

With Democrats running Congress and smoking foe Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) introducing a bill to put tobacco under FDA control, the issue of whether to put an adult rating on films or even TV shows with smoking scenes could heat up during Oscar season, although Waxman says he is not looking to regulate movie content.

“Given the tremendous dangers of tobacco,” Waxman said in an e-mail to B&C, “gratuitous glamorization of smoking is simply wrong. But I am not advocating government regulation of movie content, as this would raise serious First Amendment issues. The movie industry needs to take this issue more seriously and do all that it can not to promote tobacco use.”

Still, the anti-smoking advocates think it's only a matter of time before the smoke clears. “The tobacco industry and the Republican party are very close,” says consultant Jonathan Polansky, who has been working on the campaign. On the other hand, “the Democrats and the film industry are very close, so we have to go with the merits of the case. But it is a net improvement. Under the Democrats, the truth will come out.”

The American Medical Association (AMA), the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization and more than a dozen other groups are pushing for movie- and TV-studio self-regulation of on-screen smoking. They are backed by a $500,000 grant provided last November by the big-pocketed American Legacy Foundation, the youth-smoking–prevention effort funded out of the 1999 settlement with tobacco companies.

Claiming that Hollywood recruits approximately 390,000 kids a year to start smoking—and provides nearly $4 billion a year in free plugs for tobacco—the “Screen Out” program calls for an R rating on movies with smoking, unless the content “clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use or is necessary to represent smoking of a real historical figure”; requires producers to certify that there were no paid-for tobacco plugs in the film; demands that anti-smoking PSAs precede any film depicting tobacco use; and would no longer allow tobacco-brand identification.

The campaign has primarily targeted theatricals, but the groups are also eyeing TV, including trailers for movies that include smoking. “There are a myriad of channels that recycle films,” says Polansky. “That is why placement is so attractive. Once you put it in movie, it will be seen for decades [on TV].”

The solution for television could be slapping a TV PG or TV 14 rating on shows with smoking scenes, although Polansky says the first priority is to target them in theaters, citing a trickle-down effect to TV. It could also be scheduling the films at times when kids are less likely to be in the audience, similar to the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. safe harbor for indecency and profanity.

In a recent speech to the AMA Alliance in Washington, essentially a volunteer group of some 26,000 AMA-member spouses, Dr. Cecil Wilson, chair of the AMA Board, reiterated his support for the campaign to put an R rating on movies with smoking scenes.

“Tremendous progress has been made in recent years to treat tobacco-related diseases and encourage all smokers to quit,” Wilson said. “These measures take resources and years of hard work. But removing smoking from movies and television shows is uniquely cheap and easy.

“For programs where smoking is part of the artistic expression,” he continued, “we would encourage television programmers to schedule those at an hour when children are less likely to be watching.” He said the AMA would also encourage programmers to put a TV-PG or TV-14 rating on shows with smoking scenes, although he stops short of calling for government intervention: “We are encouraging the entertainment industry to recognize the responsibility they have to respond to this challenge.”

According to Wilson, when the AMA Alliance contacted movie studios, the response was that “they are waiting to hear from parents about this.”

The MPAA responded through spokeswoman Kori Bernards: “Everyone agrees that smoking is a very serious health problem, and the MPAA is currently exploring ways to discourage teen smoking with the Harvard School of Public Health and others.

“Ratings are meant to provide parents with information so they can make informed decisions about their children's movie-watching experience,” Bernards continued. “As always, we encourage parents to get as much information as is possible, which is why we and many of our studios have partnered with an organization called Pause, Parent, Play, which is a clearinghouse for ratings on various forms of entertainment.”

Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says parents have already spoken. He cites a survey [from the American Legacy Foundation] that found that 70% of parents would support a special rating on entertainment content. He was one of the key figures in the tobacco settlement case, after having been leaked incriminating documents by an executive at Brown & Williamson.

Glantz has been talking with Rep. Waxman's office about the issue, and he believes that Waxman is conflicted: “He is very anti-tobacco, but he also sees part of his job as protecting Hollywood.” But Glantz also said he has heard that the 70% public-approval figure “made an impression” on Waxman: “It may take a year or two, but I think [the movie industry] will be forced to change.”

Calling it an “interesting idea,” Tim Winter, president of the conservative Parents Television Council, supports adding smoking to a growing list of content that broadcasters have been put on notice about, including sex, profanity and, increasingly, violence.

Says Winter, “I endorse any effort to rate content more maturely if/when behavior is depicted which carries harmful consequences, especially for children. And that would include tobacco use.”