Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Anti-Smoking Groups Demand Complete Removal of Historically Incorrect Smoking from Non-R Rated Films; An Exercise in Hypocrisy

Not content with the MPAA's historic announcement last week that for the first time, it will consider smoking in films as a factor in the rating of films, a number of anti-smoking groups are calling the MPAA's policy a mere "placebo" and are demanding that any film with any depiction of smoking be automatically given an R rating, unless the smoking depicted is historically correct (i.e., the person depicted actually smoked in real life).

These health groups issued a strongly worded statement yesterday which declares that: "each time a member of the industry releases another movie that depicts smoking, it does so with the full knowledge of the harm it will bring to children who watch it."

Describing what happened last week, the statement said: "With much fanfare, the MPAA announces that it will “consider” tobacco imagery in the ratings starting immediately. However, for the goal of eliminating tobacco content in movies accessible to young people, it substitutes another: merely informing parents — the sort of “fig leaf” that Harvard had specifically warned against. Leading health organizations quickly denounce the MPAA’s placebo policy. They pledge to keep pressing for the “R” rating and other measures that can substantially and permanently reduce adolescent exposure. (The statements from the American Medical Association, American Heart Association, American Legacy Foundation, and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids were typical.) What happened? The major studios that make up the MPAA failed to reach consensus on the recommendations that the MPAA had itself invited. Unable to respond to the substance of the AGs’ letter, it has tried PR razzle-dazzle instead, recycling old and debunked ideas. It is now clear that the studios are not yet willing, for whatever reason, to break themselves free from Hollywood’s history of collaboration with the tobacco industry."

The groups are now calling on the parent companies of the film studios to force the studios to accept the recommendation of an automatic R-rating for any film that depicts any smoking that is not historically accurate.

The Rest of the Story

I think there are 2 aspects to the hypocrisy being displayed by these health groups.

First, I find it hypocritical to take such a principled stand against any smoking in movies - claiming that any smoking depiction in a movie (even a single, short depiction of someone smoking in the background) represents knowingly causing harm to children watching the film - and then to go ahead and argue that films which depict smoking which is historically accurate, even if the smoking is pervasive and glamorized, are perfectly OK for children to view and there is no need to protect children from exposure to these films by increasing their rating.

If the health groups were simply calling for an end to all depiction of smoking in movies, I would have a lot more respect for the proposal. I just don't see how you can take such a supposedly principled stand against any depiction of smoking, and then argue that some depiction of smoking is acceptable. It seems to me that once you start drawing a line and casting your own judgment on what smoking depictions are acceptable, then you've conceded the argument that there is a responsibility to protect children from any exposure that may increase their propensity to start smoking.

If the health groups' reasoning is correct, then by depicting historically accurate smoking, are not movie studios depicting smoking with the full knowledge of the harm it will bring to children who watch it?

The second aspect of the hypocrisy of some of these groups - in particular, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Medical Association, and the American Heart Association - is that at the same time they are supposedly standing up against the tobacco industry and demanding that Hollywood end its historical collaboration with Big Tobacco, they are teaming up with the largest tobacco company - Philip Morris - and promoting legislation that is the chief legislative priority of this cigarette company.

I'm sorry, but if you are going to march shoulder-to-shoulder with Philip Morris through the halls of Congress, jointly promoting a piece of legislation that was negotiated directly with Philip Morris and which contains provisions inserted specifically to protect Big Tobacco profits, then you have lost the pedestal upon which you can proclaim to Hollywood that it needs to end its own collaboration with the tobacco companies.

To make matters worse, I think the implication that by depicting smoking in movies, the studios are continuing their collaboration with the tobacco industry is false. There is no evidence I am aware of that in 2007, the depiction of smoking in movies represents a collaboration with the tobacco industry, or that the tobacco companies are in any way influencing the depiction of smoking in movies. I understand that historically, this was the case. But the statement implies that the collaboration continues and that the influence of the industry is the reason why films are depicting smoking today. If you are going to make such a claim, I think it is your obligation to back it up. I am not aware of any such documentation, however.

Perhaps most importantly, I find this stand by the health groups to be quite narrow-minded and inconsistent from a broader public health perspective. There are a lot of ways in which movies influence unhealthy behaviors among adolescents: depiction of drunk driving, fast driving, alcohol misuse, illicit drug use, violence, sex, sexual violence, racism, gang violence, firearms, and so forth. For any of these depictions, one could state just as accurately that they are done with with the full knowledge of the harm it will bring to children who watch them.

Why, then, are these health groups not calling for an R-rating for any film that depicts any of these other behaviors. If anything, many of these behaviors could be considered worse, because unlike smoking, many of them are illegal. If we are going to have a zero-tolerance policy for smoking in movies, should we not also have a zero-tolerance policy for these other exposures which cause great harm to our nation's children?

Again, I could respect the health groups' position a lot more if they were taking a broad public health perspective and calling for an overhaul of the ratings system such that we protect our children from exposure to the wide range of depictions that may lead them to adopt unhealthy or harmful behaviors. To single out smoking and treat it differently seems narrow-minded to me.

If a single depiction of smoking in a film warrants an R-rating, then certainly we would want to give an R rating to a film that depicts racism, would we not? Or violence against women?

While I am obviously an anti-smoking advocate, I more than anything consider myself to be a public health practitioner. I try to see the world with a wider lens than merely a filter for smoking depictions. There is a whole world of unhealthy influences of media out there. It seems we are missing much of it because the smoke has gotten in our eyes.

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