Friday, March 07, 2008

American Academy of Pediatrics Endorses the Continued Exposure of Children to Smoking in Movies, As Long as It Is Historically Correct

In a surprising turn of events, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has endorsed the policy of continuing to allow children to be exposed to smoking in movies, as long as that smoking is historically correct. The AAP, in a press release issued on February 19, called for the continued exposure of children to historically correct smoking in movies. The AAP does not want films to receive an R rating - which would limit children's exposure - if they contain smoking that "is necessary to represent the smoking of a real historical figure."

The AAP's position puts it in line with many other public health and anti-smoking groups which have endorsed the same idea: kids should continue to be exposed to smoking in movies, but efforts must be made to ensure that the smoking is historically correct.

This position is surprising because the AAP (similar to the other public health groups supporting the SmokeFreeMovies proposal) has claimed that:
  • Smoking in movies is "one of the gravest threats to U.S. teens";
  • "On-screen tobacco recruits 390,000 new teen smokers each year in the U.S."; and
  • "Movies with tobacco help to recruit one-third to one-half of young smokers in the U.S."
The Rest of the Story

I simply do not understand the seeming hypocrisy of this position. If it is true that smoking is one of the greatest threats to teens, causing 390,000 teens to start smoking each year and representing the cause of smoking initiation for as many as one-half of young smokers, then how can these organizations possibly support a policy which defines smoking in movies as a problem only if it is "unnecessary?"

Let me make this clear: I do not for a moment believe that smoking in movies is single-handedly responsible for one-half of all smoking initiation in the United States.

But let me also make one other thing clear: If I did believe that smoking in movies was the cause of half of smoking initiation among youths, and I further believed that it was appropriate to put an R-rating on movies that depicted any smoking, I would not support the idea of allowing smoking in films just because it is historically accurate.

If the issue is what these groups claim it is - that smoking in movies that youths view is unacceptable because that depiction of smoking causes 390,000 of them each year to start smoking - then why does it matter whether that depiction of smoking is of a real historical character who smoked or a fake character who smoked? If it is causing kids to start smoking then it shouldn't matter. Is the problem that smoking in movies causes kids to smoke or that we are somehow bothered by non-historically accurate depiction of smoking?

Why is it not acceptable for kids to start smoking due to fictional depiction of smoking in movies, but perfectly acceptable for kids to start smoking due to non-fictional depiction of smoking in movies?

By relying upon this argument, I think the AAP and other groups have essentially destroyed their case. Because they have turned the rationale from a health argument to an artistic one. On purely health grounds, it shouldn't matter whether smoking in a movie is fictional or non-fictional. If it causes kids to start smoking and one has a problem with that, then it shouldn't matter.

By arguing that only fictional, but not non-fictional depiction of smoking in movies is a problem, the AAP and other health groups are essentially arguing that the problem is one of artistic expression, not just health.

Unfortunately, I think the health groups are going to lose this battle on artistic expression grounds. And frankly, that's why I think the motion picture industry has not been as receptive to the idea of automatic R ratings for films as the anti-smoking groups would have liked.

The AAP is framing this as an issue of inappropriate artistic expression. They are asking the film industry to differentiate between fictional and non-fictional depiction of smoking. Thus, they are basically attempting to regulate artistic expression.

If instead, the AAP were to frame this as an issue of health, they would have to ask the film industry to simply differentiate between the depiction of smoking or the absence of smoking. That would be an attempt to regulate a health threat.

I find it hypocritical for the AAP and other health groups to take this position not because I think that the non-fictional depiction of smoking is so terrible, but because if one accepts their claims (i.e., that 390,000 kids start smoking each year due to the depiction of smoking in films), then it becomes inexcusable to call for the continuation of smoking in films (albeit those in which the smoking depiction is non-fictional).

Furthermore, if smoking in movies is so bad that we must adopt a zero-tolerance policy (meaning that any depiction of smoking warrants an R rating), then how could it be acceptable for a non-R movie to show a non-fictional character smoking throughout an entire movie? Are you telling me that it is better to have a non-fictional character smoking up a storm throughout an entire movie than to show a fleeting glimpse of a fictional character smoking?

For that matter, are you telling me that it is better to show a non-fictional character smoking in a glamorized way throughout a film than to show a fictional character smoke momentarily in a non-glamorized way (such as huddling outside a Boston restaurant in sub-zero degree wind chill conditions in the winter)?

This makes absolutely no sense to me.

There are a number of additional problems:

1. How can it possibly be acceptable for alcohol, drugs, sex, and violence to be acceptable in films as long as they are within limits, but for smoking to be unacceptable at any degree, even a momentary or fleeting glimpse? Why a zero-tolerance policy for a cigarette, but a very different policy for alcohol and violence?

2. What does it mean when AAP demands an exception for smoking by a historical figure? Is Sherlock Holmes a historical figure? What if a filmmaker wanted to recreate a Sherlock Holmes mystery? Would showing Sherlock smoking a pipe violate the AAP policy? After all, the depiction is undoubtedly historically correct? If a novelist of the past has clearly indicated that a character smokes, does that warrant an exemption from the policy?

3. There are also serious problems with the exception that AAP and other health groups are demanding for films that depict smoking in a way that "clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use."

Suppose that a film is laced throughout with glamorized and pervasive smoking by a character. At some point in the movie, it clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use by revealing that the character has peptic ulcer disease (which is caused by smoking) and the film shows him popping a Pepto Bismol after a meal. That would apparently be allowable. After all, it does clearly reflect one of the consequences of tobacco use: peptic ulcer disease.

Are you telling me that pervasive smoking in a movie where a character pops a Pepto Bismol is better for children than a film which shows a momentary image of someone smoking?

What if the film shows someone with an ear infection due to secondhand smoke? Is that a clear and ambiguous reflection of the dangers of smoking? Can a film depict smoking pervasively and glamorously as long as the smoking character's child has an ear infection at some point in the film?

And what if a film does show a severe health effect, such as heart disease? Is there evidence that if a film shows smoking in a glamorous and pervasive manner, but the smoking character develops stable angina at age 75 that it will deter kids from smoking? On the contrary, there is strong evidence that kids don't really care about the health consequences of smoking, especially those that occur 60 years later. We know that such a depiction is very unlikely to deter kids from smoking. So how does that make it acceptable to pervasively show smoking in a film?

As you can see, the entire issue represents a regulation of artistic expression, rather than a true regulation of a health issue (for which it would not matter whether the smoking characters are historical or non-historical, or whether a health effect at age 75 or 80 is shown).

What bothers me the most is that this appears to be yet another example of where anti-smoking groups seem unable to stand up for a principle and are instead taking a hypocritical position. If smoking in movies causes a whopping 390,000 kids to start smoking each year, then what business do these health groups have demanding that films continue to be allowed to depict historically correct smoking? After all, the effect of smoking in movies on kids has not been shown to be differential with respect to whether the character is historical or not.

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