A column by Steve Chapman in yesterday's Chicago Tribune takes issue with the demand of many anti-smoking groups that any movie that depicts non-historical smoking be automatically given an R rating.
Chapman makes a number of arguments, starting with the contention that the research linking exposure to smoking in movies with smoking initiation is perhaps not as strong as anti-smoking groups have made it out to be. Specifically, Chapman suggests that the observed relationship between seeing smokers in movies and starting to smoke may be due to an increased propensity to smoke among the kinds of youths that tend to view movies that show lots of smoking: "it may be that teens who are inclined to smoke anyway are also inclined to see the sort of movies that feature smoking."
Chapman then quotes me, noting my argument that this research cannot possibly isolate a specific effect of movie smoking, as opposed to exposure to smoking in a variety of media: "Michael Siegel, a physician and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, believes the studies greatly exaggerate the impact of tobacco in films. 'It is simply one of a large number of ways in which youths are exposed to positive images of smoking (which includes advertisements, television movies, television shows, DVDs, Internet, music videos and a variety of other sources),' he told me in an e-mail interview. 'To single out smoking in movies as the cause of youth smoking initiation for a large percentage of kids is ridiculous.'"
The column then cites my argument that a mandatory R rating for any smoking in movies could undermine the ratings system and ironically lead to more exposure to smoking: "Siegel points out that applying R ratings to films just because they feature full-frontal shots of cigarettes may backfire. Parents anxious about sex and violence may stop paying attention to the rating system once it factors in smoking. So you could end up with more kids seeing films with smoking."
Finally, Chapman makes the interesting point that requiring an R rating of movies that depict smoking may not be particularly effective in preventing youth exposure to smoking in movies, since data show that 84% of kids in grades 5 through 8 (pre-teens and young teenagers) view R-rated movies. The percentage must be even higher among older teenagers.
The Rest of the Story
The point this column makes about the extremely high percentage of adolescents who view R-rated movies is a very important one. Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that smoking in movies is responsible for 38% of youth smoking, as asserted by some anti-smoking researchers, it is not necessarily the case that requiring an R rating for movies that depict smoking would lead to any substantial reduction in youth smoking.
The reason is that the overwhelming majority of adolescents are exposed to smoking in R-rated movies. It is not clear whether the anti-smoking groups' proposed policy would actually prevent youths from being exposed to smoking in movies.
In fact, it is possible that the exposure to smoking in movies might not be reduced substantially. First of all, smoking depictions would tend to be heavily concentrated among R-rated movies. Movies that previously might have limited smoking would no longer have any incentive to do so. Since a single smoking depiction would generate an R rating anyway, the film might as well depict as much smoking as desired. Thus, the R-rated films that youths see anyway could well be packed with smoking depictions.
Second, the rating of any film with any smoking depiction as an R-rated film could well undermine the ratings system. Parents might become more lax about their children viewing R-rated films. Or it might give kids an excuse to convince their parents to let them watch such movies ("Awe mom. It's only rated R because one of the characters lights up a cigarette once.")
Third, youths would continue to see smoking in many other media, including advertisements, television movies, television shows, DVDs, the internet, music videos and a variety of other sources.
Things are a lot more complex than the anti-smoking groups are making them out to be. The world is not black and white. It is not as simple as concluding that exposure to smoking in non-R rated movies is the cause of more than a third of youth smoking. And we are deceiving ourselves if we think that requiring an R-rating of any movie with any smoking depiction is going to save countless lives.