Friday, July 27, 2007

Anti-Smoking Groups Up in Arms Over Failure to Give "Hairspray" an R-Rating Due to Momentary Teen Smoking

Anti-smoking groups are apparently up in arms over the decision by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to give the new movie "Hairspray" only a PG rating (instead of an R rating) due to its depiction of momentary teen smoking. The MPAA, in accordance with its new policy which considers smoking as one factor in determining a movie's rating, added a descriptor in the rating tag which notes that the movie contains "momentary teen smoking." The full tag states: "Language, Some Suggestive Content and Mometary Teen Smoking." However, the anti-smoking groups, headed by the SmokeFreeMovies campaign and the American Legacy Foundation, were outraged, complaining that this action does not go far enough and that the film should have received an R rating instead.

SmokeFreeMovies argued that the use of descriptors to note smoking depiction is meaningless: "The MPAA -- acting on behalf of the big media companies -- is pursuing exactly the kind of meaningless policy related to tobacco that we predicted back in 2002, namely just adding a tobacco descriptor to a youth rating."

The movie represents the film version of the Broadway musical (which follows the original 1988 John Waters film) and is set in Baltimore of the 1960s. It is described as containing "a fleeting scene of smoking in a high school bathroom. There are also brief shots of a character billed in the credits as 'smoking teacher' in a faculty lounge, as well as pregnant mothers smoking and drinking during a musical number."

The American Legacy Foundation is quoted as stating: "I don't know that just because a movie takes place in the '60s that it justifies a PG, since 14- and 15-year-olds are in the bull's-eye for the cigarette market. It's really unfortunate and a disappointingly anemic response to a public health problem."

In 1962, the exact year depicted in the film, more than half of men and about one-third of women smoked. It was just about the peak of female smoking in the United States, and was prior to the drastic decline in male smoking rates that began after the release of the 1964 Surgeon General's report.

The Rest of the Story

In the 1960s (as today), people's diets were crappy. People ingested (as they do today) high amounts of fat and low amounts of fruits and vegetables. However, I don't think too many health groups would describe the failure of the MPAA to rate "R" any movie that depicts a poor diet as an "anemic response to a public health problem."

It is clear that these groups were not just whistling Dixie. They actually believe that if a movie depicts smoking at all, even if just momentarily, it should automatically receive an R-rating because this is such a huge public health problem. And now that the MPAA has followed its policy, true to its word, by noting that momentary smoking takes place in "Hairspray," the anti-smoking groups are up in arms because apparently warning parents about this huge threat to our kids - the presence of a puff on a cigarette in a film depicting the 1960s - is not enough. The film needs to be rated R and made "inaccessible" to youths.

As Jacob Sullum noted in his column in today's Los Angeles Times, this approach by the anti-smoking groups could well make smoking more popular by casting it as a forbidden fruit. If a fleeting depiction of smoking is such a remarkable occurrence that needs to be hidden from teens, then doesn't that make smoking seem that much more rebellious and to a teenager - appealing?

Are we really supposed to change history and pretend that smoking didn't exist? If you go strictly by the percentages, the majority of men in 1962 were smokers. Are artists depicting 1962 actually supposed to ignore the historical facts and depict everyone as nonsmokers if they are not interested in producing an adult-oriented film?

Don't we actually want to reveal the truth to kids? Let them see that smoking was widespread. Then, by comparing that with the much lower rates of smoking they see today, they'll come to the realization that smoking is not as "cool" as it used to be. That it seems to be going out of favor. If anything, if they think that no one used to smoke but lots of people do today, it makes it seem like it is a fad.

I suppose that the depiction of racial segregation and discrimination as depicted in the film should also be removed. Perhaps we should also wipe away that aspect of our nation's history as well, so as not to expose kids to anything that might give them ideas. The reality, of course, is that the film is a great tribute to racial equality, integration, and harmony, and the message it sends is an important one.

It's now clear that anti-smoking groups are trying to meddle in artistic expression, not merely attempting to eliminate gratuitous smoking from films.

With this over-reaction and the crusade-like nature of their quest, it seems to me that they lose ground, not gain it.

I can tell you as a parent that the few fleeting scenes of smoking in the movie are of far less concern to me in terms of my kids seeing them than the highly suggestive sexual content of the film. If the film is not going to receive higher than a PG rating for that sexual content, there is no way it should receive an R-rating for the few fleeting scenes of smoking.

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