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Smoke Get Into The MPAA's Eyes
May 24, 2007


Last week, the Motion Picture Association of America announced on-screen depictions of smoking would now be accounted for when determining a movie's rating. The decision is a much needed improvement to the movie rating system, but parents need to be aware that a puff or two doesn't automatically mean an R-rating.


In the official statement on the change MPAA chair Dan Glickman says the Classification and Ratings Administration's (CARA) board will consider "smoking as a factor -- among many other factors, including violence, sexual situations and language -- in the rating of films."  He also says the context in which the smoking is portrayed will be heavily considered. For instance, a historic film will be measured differently than one that includes tobacco use in a contemporary setting.


George Clooney's PG-rated Good Night, And Good Luck immediately comes to mind. The movie is set in the 1950s and many scenes are shot in television control rooms and broadcast offices. Having worked for years in broadcasting, I can say this is definitely an accurate depiction, and unfortunately I have consumed my share of toxic secondhand smoke because of it. Yet, under the new guidelines, it seems this film would earn a higher rating for its non-stop tobacco use.


Pervasive use of cigarettes and tobacco is one of the other aspects the board is to look for in a film, along with glamorization of the habit. Situations like these will result in at least an additional ratings descriptor (that's the official text that accompanies a film's rating) and perhaps a more restrictive rating. However, even in these situations, an R-rating is not a given.


Lest you think for a moment that I'm soft on smoking, let me assure you I'm not. I'm an avid non-smoker, raised in a home where my father, grandmother, and virtually every other relative I spent time with, chain-smoked. I have always found the addictive habit repulsive, and have never even tried a single puff. But there are some other factors at play here that go beyond the simple idea of smoking in a movie equals a restricted rating.


To begin, I'm less concerned about Good Night, And Good Luck's depictions of smoldering broadcast executives as I am about scenes like one recently observed in a film titled In The Land of Women. This quietly released little romance features a handsome male hero who frequently smokes, and even shares a cigarette with a female teen character during a bonding conversation. This PG-13 movie includes a brief "smoking is bad for you" comment by the teen's mother near the end of the film, but in my books, the chastisement wasn't nearly enough to counteract the compelling scene of the duo puffing together late in the evening.


Also interesting, is Glickman claims in the same statement that the MPAA has always considered "underage smoking," yet there was no indication in the rating's descriptor for this film that a teen character was shown using a cigarette. I would hope with CARA's new instructions scenes like this would need to be cut, or the anti-smoking message expanded, in order for a film to qualify for a PG-13 rating.


Even Shrek the Third, which is currently burning down the box office, contributes to the smoking debate. One scene takes place in a pub where all the "bad guys" hang out. A shot opens on a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray sitting on top of a piano. Why was that short moment included? It certainly wasn't necessary, and completely inappropriate in a PG-rated film directly aimed toward young audiences.

However, a visual gag of high school aged kids exiting what is obviously intended to be a pot-smoke filled carriage made to look like a hippie bus was even more bothersome. While technically this isn't tobacco use, it is a blatant glamorization of illegal drug use in a PG movie! CARA's guidelines specifically state that drug use is a serious consideration in determining a movie's rating, and usually puts a film into the realm of PG-13 and R-ratings.


The other problem of weighing the ratings too heavily on smoking is the issue of focusing too much on this one content criteria. An anti-smoking in movies website I visited is endorsing the movie 300 with a stellar review because no Greek Spartans were observed with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. In this historical context, I highly doubt selling a tobacco product placement was an expectation for the film's producer. Yet this non-stop gore fest is hardly appropriate for teen viewing based on the single fact that no one is smoking.


Finally, because of two polarized facts, perhaps it's somewhat of a moot point to have a movie rated R based on smoking alone anyway. According to Glickman, 75% of movies in the past couple of years that have featured smoking have been rated R for other factors. That means kids shouldn't be seeing the vast majority of movies that feature smoking in them. Yet, on the other side of the issue, many studies have shown (as will a visit to any theater) that it's not unusual for kids to view R-rated movies anyway.


Ironically, this fact is once again confirmed in a recent study about the affects of cinematic smoking on young people. A 2004 report (published in the journal Pediatrics), which is one of the first to analyze how smoking in movies affects real life behavior, involved over 2,500 adolescents and followed up with them about two years later. The researchers noted that nearly half of the 10 to 14 year olds were often allowed or always allowed to view R-rated films.


And, yes, the study discovered that adolescents in homes where watching R-rated movies was permissible, were more likely to begin smoking or try smoking during the time period between the initial contact and the follow-up survey nearly two years later. (Interestingly, a greater proportion of kids living in non-smoking homes appeared to be influenced negatively by on-screen smoking in movies.)


Much like sex and violence in movies, smoking is usually presented without consequence. We usually don't follow a character for twenty years so we have the time to see her die after a slow painful encounter with cancer. Parents need to make sure they interpret these inaccurate portrayals by reminding young audiences about the real dangers of tobacco use. Of course, a little more common sense and responsibility from the entertainment industry would go a long way in helping this effort but, just like an addicted puffer, it takes a long time to wean off the habit.


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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