Does smoking in a movie deserve an ‘R’ rating?

If a character drops too many f-bombs in a movie, the film is likely to get bumped up to an “R” from a “PG-13” rating. Many public-health groups would like to give similar treatment to onscreen smoking, saying it boosts the probability kids will take up the habit, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

That case was made this week in a paper published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The study actually showed that number of tobacco-use “incidents” (almost all of which involved smoking) in top-grossing movies declined steadily between 2005 and 2009 after zig-zagging in previous years.

Still, the researchers, led by Stanton Glantz, a UCSF professor of medicine who directs the Smoke Free Movies Project, calculated there were still 1,935 movie tobacco incidents in 2009. The most famous onscreen user that year was Sigourney Weaver’s character, environmental scientist Grace Augustine, in the superduperblockbuster “Avatar.”

Glantz and others leapt on her cigarette habit after the movie came out, claiming it imbued the movie with a pro-smoking message. Cameron responded to the criticism in a New York Times Arts Beat blog post, saying he used cigarettes to define Augustine’s initially “off-putting and even unpleasant” character.

Glantz and his co-authors write that cutting tobacco’s onscreen appearances even further “could lead to less initiation of smoking among adolescents,” citing previous epidemiological research, including one study (of which Glantz was an author) that found the more a young adults was exposed to onscreen smoking, the more likely he or she was to smoke.

The authors recommend the implementation of “effective methods to reduce the potential harmful influence” of tobacco use in films. An editorial note accompanying the paper cites four such methods:

• An “R” rating for movies that include smoking or other tobacco use.
• Requiring “strong anti-tobacco ads” before movies that include tobacco use.
• Not allowing tobacco products used in movies to show a visible brand.
• Requiring producers of movies that include tobacco use to certify that no consideration was paid to include the depiction.
 
“There’s a very strong scientific evidence base … that [seeing] smoking onscreen causes kids to smoke,” Glantz said in a telephone press conference about the study. If directors want their characters to smoke, they should have them do it in movies not marketed to kids, he said.

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