Should Smoking on Camera Be Rated "R"?

Posted by Amanda Hess


Films screened in the United States can earn an R rating for featuring "sexually-oriented nudity," "drug use," "hard language," or "intense or persistent violence." Now, some public health experts are hoping to give smoking the red band treatment, too.

Two groups of researchers—one in favor of adult ratings for films that feature smoking, and one opposed to the ratings—are hashing out the implications of such a move on America's health, freedom, and economy. Below, the case for giving lighting up a "restricted" rating, and the one for keeping it "parental guidance suggested":

RED: The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control support the ratings. The WHO advises that all "future movies with scenes of smoking (and other tobacco) be given an adult content rating," researchers wrote in support of the policy, "with the possible exception of movies that depict the dangers of tobacco use or smoking by an actual historical figure who actually smoked."

GREEN: Enforcing the rules would strip films of historical accuracy. While real historical figures—like The King's Speech's King George VI—would be free to smoke in films without a restricted rating, fictional figures in similar cultural contexts would be barred from lighting up. "Apparently it is unreasonable to airbrush the historical record of a well-known individual's smoking, but defensible for this to occur where whole populations or eras are concerned," critics argue.

RED: Smoking in movies could encourage smoking in the real world. "Research indicates that exposure to tobacco imagery in movies is a potent cause of youth experimentation and progression to established smoking—with a dose-response relationship that indicates heavily exposed youths are about three times as likely to begin smoking as lightly exposed youths," proponents say.

GREEN: Smoking is everywhere. Critics challenge the idea that "legions of children only smoke because of their exposure to movie smoking and that the resilience of this influence is so great that it retains a vice-like grip all the way through to the eventual death of these young smokers decades later, unmodified by other influences throughout these years." In fact, kids today are subjected to a "lifetime of exposure to the sight of smoking in uncounted public, social, and family situations" and cultural influences ranging from magazine features to YouTube.

RED: Our governments are actually subsidizing these images of smoking. In 2008, U.S. states paid $1.3 billion to Hollywood in the form of "production incentives," grants that covered up to 25 percent of daily film industry production costs. And many of those films feature smoking. From 2006 to 2008, Louisiana awarded tax credits to 27 films that saw national theatrical release by 2010. Of those, 17 featured tobacco products.

GREEN: An "R" rating is no longer a real barrier in the digital age. Even if smoking earned films an adult rating, kids would still see them. "[Y]outh very frequently access adult-rated movies via friends and download them legally and illegally by the millions from the web," the critics write. "In 2008 in the United States alone, more than 10 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 watched a movie on the Internet."

RED: The ratings would encourage production companies to nix cigarettes from their films altogether. "The primary logic for recommending an adult content rating policy is to create an economic incentive for producers to leave smoking out of movies that are marketed to youths," proponents argue. "Youth-rated movies are more financially successful than adult-rated ones, so "eliminating smoking and other tobacco imagery from youth-rated films would substantially reduce the total exposure of onscreen smoking images delivered to youth."

GREEN: In a free society, art should not be required to model positive behavior. "The role of film in open societies involves far more than being simply a means to mass communicate healthy role models," the critics write. "Many movies depict social problems and people behaving badly and smoking in movies mirrors the prevalence of smoking in populations. Except in authoritarian nations with state-controlled media, the role of cinema and literature is not only to promote overtly prosocial or health 'oughts' but to have people also reflect on what 'is' in society."

RED: Placing adult ratings on smoking content has popular appeal. In fact, 70 percent of Americans "agree that smoking scenes should cause a movie to be thus rated."

GREEN: Americans believe a lot of things. "Many Americans also believe in devil possession (58.6%), a biblical rather than evolutionary account of the origins of life (55.8%), UFOs (40.6%), and astrology (33.3%)," the critics point out.

Slapping an "R" rating on tobacco in film won't stop kids from seeing people smoke—but it may prevent them from seeing accurate portrayals of every era of modern history (360 billion cigarettes were smoked in 1950, about the same number as today). Still, banning smoking would hardly be the most controversial value judgment of the MPAA, whose highly arbitrary rating system rates sex as more extreme than violence, sees gay sex as more obscene than the straight stuff, and grades the word "fuck" based on whether it refers to sexual intercourse or not. Now that we're reevaluating what kids should be allowed to see, it might be worth it to just start from scratch.