The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) yesterday announced a new policy to address the depiction of smoking in movies viewed by children and adolescents. From now on, smoking in movies will be considered as a factor, along with sex and violence, in rating movies. Previously, only underage smoking was considered, not adult smoking. In particular, the ratings board will focus on whether smoking is glamorized, whether it is pervasive, and whether there is any mitigating factor such as historical context. The film ratings will include reference to the depiction of smoking, such as "glamorized smoking" or "pervasive smoking" to provide specific information to parents.
According to the MPAA press release: "the rating board chaired by Joan Graves will now consider smoking as a factor—among many other factors, including violence, sexual situations and language—in the rating of films. Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society. There is broad awareness of smoking as a unique public health concern due to nicotine’s highly addictive nature, and no parent wants their child to take up the habit. The appropriate response of the rating system is to give more information to parents on this issue. This action is an extension of our current practice of factoring under-age smoking into the rating of films. Now, all smoking will be a consideration in the rating process. Three questions will have particular weight for our rating board when considering smoking in a film: Is the smoking pervasive? Does the film glamorize smoking? And, is there an historic or other mitigating context? Additionally, when a film’s rating is affected by the depiction of smoking, that rating will now include phrases such as ‘glamorized smoking’ or ‘pervasive smoking.’ This ensures specific information is front and center for parents as they make decisions for their kids."
Despite the MPAA's historic announcement, anti-smoking groups were not pleased. They had demanded that all movies with any non-historical depiction of smoking be automatically given an R-rating.
The American Legacy Foundation called the MPAA's action "an anemic response." According to a Legacy Foundation statement: "'This announcement is wholly inadequate and will cost countless lives,' said Legacy’s President and CEO Cheryl Healton, DrPH. 'Since more than 80 percent of smokers start before turning 18, youth exposure to smoking in youth rated movies is a vital concern for our nation's health.'"
Anti-smoking groups such as the American Legacy Foundation and the SmokeFreeMovies campaign as well as researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health had called for an automatic R rating for any depiction of smoking in films, unless that smoking was in a historical context or if it clearly showed the adverse health effects of smoking. The SmokeFreeMovies campaign stated the exception for the automatic R rating as follows: "when the presentation of tobacco...is necessary to represent the smoking of a historical figure."
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids responded to the MPAA announcement as follows: "We are deeply disappointed that the movie ratings policy announced today by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) falls short of the real change needed to reduce youth exposure to smoking in the movies. This policy fails to implement the recommendation by numerous public health organizations that any new movie with non-historical smoking be rated R."
The Rest of the Story
I see four major problems with the anti-smoking groups' demands and their disappointed response to the MPAA announcement: (1) hypocrisy; (2) inconsistency between the demand and its stated purpose; (3) exaggeration and narrow-mindedness; and (4) more hypocrisy.
First, for the purposes of argument, let us stipulate that the anti-smoking groups are correct and that exposure to smoking in non-R rated movies causes 38% of smoking initiation in the country, making it the leading known cause of youth smoking. Let us stipulate that smoking depiction in non-R movies is therefore responsible for about 200,000 new youth smokers each year. Let us stipulate further that the anti-smoking groups are therefore correct in stating that failing to require an R-rating "will cost countless lives."
As I have argued, I do not believe for a moment that these stipulations are correct. I do not think that the scientific evidence is sufficient to conclude that exposure to smoking in non-R rated movies causes 200,000 kids to start smoking each year. But indulge me for the sake of making my argument.
If it is indeed true that depiction of smoking in movies is going to result in killing people (as the American Legacy Foundation has put it), then what possible justification is there for allowing kids to be exposed to any depiction of smoking, whether it is historically correct or not?
Who cares if a smoking depiction is historically correct if it is going to cause kids to become addicted to smoking and ultimately, for many of them to die because of it? If a depiction of smoking in a movie is going to result in disease and premature death among many of those in the audience, then how can we possibly allow an exemption for movies that depict smoking in a historically correct manner? Who cares if the person actually smoked or not? It is the smoking depiction that is killing kids, not the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of that depiction.
I find it extremely hypocritical for anti-smoking groups to suggest that smoking in movies is so bad that we need to remove any shred of it from any movies which kids may view, but that it is not so bad that we need to remove the historical depiction of smoking.
Need I remind anyone that the "historical" depiction of smoking need not refer to old movies or to ancient historical figures. A movie about a modern-day individual who smokes could be considered to be a historically correct depiction of smoking, and would be exempt under the anti-smoking groups' proposed policy. So too, I could argue, would be any live filming of people in which they are smoking. After all, if I film people and they are smoking, then that depiction is historically correct. They were smoking at the time I filmed them. As long as the smoking is not staged, it is could be interpreted as being a historically correct depiction. And what about a character in a novel? If that character smoked, even if it is a piece of fiction, is it not "historically" correct to then depict that character smoking in my movie?
I find the hypocrisy to be so severe in this case that in my view, it destroys the very argument that the anti-smoking groups are making. You cannot convince me that a problem is so serious that we need to remove every shred of smoking from any movie seen by a kid, but then tell me that you support the idea of allowing smoking to be depicted in movies, so long as it is historically correct. That argument just won't fly with me. It's loaded with hypocrisy and it loses its ability to compel me.
2. Inconsistency Between the Demand and Its Stated Purpose
The stated purpose of the proposed automatic R-rating policy is to stop kids from starting to smoke by reducing their exposure to the depiction of smoking in movies. The premise is that any depiction of smoking in movies causes kids to start smoking, unless the adverse health effects are shown. A policy derived from such an intent would therefore demand that smoking be eliminated from all movies unless adverse effects are shown - period.
The fact that the policy demanded by anti-smoking groups would allow the widespread depiction of smoking in movies as long as it is historically correct completely obscures, and is inconsistent with, the stated purpose of the policy.
If one analyzes the policy proposed by anti-smoking groups, the primary concern seems to be one of historical correctness. In other words, the actual policy that the groups propose is based primarily on a concern for integrity in artistic expression. The implied concern is that there is something wrong with smoking that is depicted in a historically incorrect way. The problem is with gratuitous smoking - smoking that is not "necessary." But no smoking is "necessary."
If the concern were purely one of youth exposure to smoking, then historical accounts of smoking - whether true or not - would not be acceptable. The fact that they are acceptable implies that the policy is actually directed not at youth exposure to smoking, but at the integrity of artistic expression related to smoking. The criterion being suggested is whether or not smoking is appropriate in a film. And what is being deemed appropriate is the depiction of smoking by a person who actually did or does smoke.
As soon as the anti-smoking groups begin to delve into the regulation of artistic expression, that's where they lose me, and that's where their argument loses as well. Who are they to argue that as long as smoking actually occurred in real life, it is acceptable for an artist to depict that in film? And who are they to argue that if smoking did not actually occur in real life, it is not acceptable to depict smoking in film?
There is plenty of gruesome violence that actually occurred historically. Does that mean that it is acceptable for artists to depict that violence in films widely seen by children? Or to put it another way, should the motion picture rating board not increase the rating of a film that depicts gruesome violence, so long as that violence is depicted in a historically correct manner?
It is not the historical accuracy of violence that is the problem, it is the violence. Parents don't particularly care whether the violence is real or not; if it is gruesome, they do not want their kids to see it - or at least they want the opportunity of preventing their kids from seeing it.
The anti-smoking groups have destroyed their argument by straying so far away from their original expressed concern - the exposure of youths to smoking in movies. They have shifted over into the artistic expression arena - how is smoking depicted in movies and under what circumstances? This is a far cry from the issue of whether or not youths are exposed to smoking in movies.
This is therefore the second reason why I don't find the anti-smoking groups' argument compelling.
3. Exaggeration and Narrow-Mindedness
Now we can finally stop stipulating. Let's look at the scientific evidence. What we know is that kids who tend to watch movies with pervasive smoking are more likely to smoke than those who do not. What we know is that kids whose parents allow them to view these kinds of movies are more likely to smoke than kids whose parents are more restrictive in their parenting. The kind of media habits that youths have, independent of the depiction of smoking, is likely to be an important influence on smoking behavior. Restrictive parenting is also known to be associated with a reduced risk of youth smoking. Thus, it is entirely possible that these types of factors are confounding the observed relationship between exposure to smoking in movies and smoking initiation.
Yes - I understand that the studies made some attempt to control for restrictive parenting. But I don't think that it controlled for it adequately; nor did it control for some of the other major differences between kids who go out to these kind of movies and kids who do not. Moreover, there are lots of other sources of media depictions of smoking - DVDs, videos, television shows, music videos, the internet, etc. - and exposure to smoking in these media correlates highly with exposure to smoking in movies in movie theaters. So there is no way that one can isolate exposure to smoking in movies and conclude that it is responsible for 38% of youth smoking, even if there were no confounding factors that provide a reasonable alternative hypothesis to the conclusions of these studies.
Now before you start attacking me - let me state clearly that I do think that smoking in movies is a problem. I do think that the widespread media depiction of smoking is a major problem. I do think that it contributes to smoking initiation. I do think that the problem needs to be addressed and I think it is great that anti-smoking groups have taken on this issue (or at least they appear to have taken it on - read on to argument #4).
However, I do not think that it is as simple as stating that smoking in movies in theaters causes 200,000 kids to start smoking each year, or that smoking in movies causes exactly 38% of all smoking initiation. I don't think it is as simple as saying that any depiction of smoking in movies causes kids to smoke. I take a much broader perspective on the problem. I think that the overall widespread exposure in the media to smoking is an influence on smoking initiation. I would be very hesitant to single out one particular mode of exposure and claim that it is single-handedly responsible for all the observed increase in youth smoking among those who are exposed to smoking depictions in that medium.
Moreover, I don't believe that decreasing youth smoking is as simple as reducing exposure to smoking in R-rated movies. There are many other media by which youths are exposed to smoking, and there is no guarantee that that reducing smoking exposure in one medium only is going to ameliorate the problem.
Furthermore, if movies with any smoking are given an R-rating, it could potentially undermine the entire ratings system. If parents think that a movie might have an R-rating simply because there was a whiff of smoke, might parents not become less restrictive about allowing their kids to see R-rated movies? Might parents start to become more lax? Could that actually result in kids seeing not only more smoking, but more sex and violence as well? I'm not stating that this is necessarily the case - I'm just pointing out that there has been no research to document that requiring an R-rating of movies that depict any smoking would actually save lives. There can be unintended consequences of policies, and in this case, I think it's quite likely.
Most importantly, even if one accepts the conclusions of the research, there is absolutely no evidence that a single depiction of smoking in a movie causes kids to start smoking. In other words, there is little scientific support for a zero-tolerance policy, such that any depiction of smoking in movies must be eliminated from movies which youths are likely to see.
All in all, I think the anti-smoking groups are exaggerating the science, over-stating their claims, and going way beyond the documented evidence in their public communications on this issue. I also think that we have become somewhat narrow-minded. Sure, smoking is a problem. But to be honest, it's not my first concern when it comes to my kids starting to watch movies in theaters. Violence, sex, and alcohol use are also major concerns. To single out smoking as warranting a zero-tolerance policy, but not treat violence, sex, or alcohol in the same way seems quite narrow-minded and inconsistent to me.
All in all, I think that the MPAA response makes a lot of sense. Consider smoking as a factor in the ratings system, just as sex and violence are considered (it seems to me that alcohol use is another factor that the MPAA should start addressing if it is not already). Don't use a zero-tolerance policy, but look at a movie in its entirety. And look at the pervasiveness and glamorization of smoking - not just whether there is any smoking depiction.
4. More Hypocrisy
Of course, the ultimate hypocrisy, which bears repeating here, is that the American Legacy Foundation is talking out of both sides of its mouth.
On the one hand, smoking in movies is the most terrible problem we face; it is killing people; the corporations that are responsible are complicit in the eventual deaths of thousands of young people each year; we must adopt a zero-tolerance policy and eliminate any depiction of smoking in movies; the response of the motion picture companies is unacceptable; by their anemic response, they are killing countless numbers of people.
On the other hand, the American Legacy Foundation is a corporate partner with the chief culprit - Time Warner. If Time Warner is really killing people and its refusal to eliminate smoking in movies seen by youths is going to kill people, then how can Legacy possibly partner with this company?
I'm not arguing that it is inappropriate for Legacy to partner with Time Warner per se. I'm just stating that Legacy needs to make up its mind. If smoking in movies is killing people, then there is no excuse for Legacy to partner with the chief murderer. On the other hand, if Legacy is perhaps overstating the case, then maybe it makes sense to try to work with Time Warner from the inside to address the problem. But you can't have it both ways.
To close, I can't do any better than to repeat what Christopher Buckley, author of the satirical novel "Thank You for Smoking," told the Washington Post in today's article: "I can only hope this means that the MPAA will strip such films as 'Casablanca,' 'To Have and Have Not' and 'Sunset Boulevard' of their G-ratings and re-label them for what they were: insidious works of pro-smoking propaganda that led to millions of uncounted deaths. Bravo."
The inconsistency, exaggeration, and blatant hypocrisy of the anti-smoking groups is ripe grounds for satire. If only I had Buckley's wit, perhaps I could write my own film. Any ideas for what I could call it?