Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tobacco Control Commentary Criticizes Anti-Smoking Groups' Proposal for an R-Rating for All Movies that Depict Smoking

In a commentary published in the current issue of the journal Tobacco Control, the journal's editor - Dr. Simon Chapman - criticizes the proposal being supported by many anti-smoking groups (including Smoke Free Movies, the American Legacy Foundation, and the American Public Health Association) to require an R-rating of any movie that depicts smoking (see: Chapman S. What should be done about smoking in movies? Tobacco Control 2008; 17(6):363-367).

Dr. Chapman writes: "In many liberal societies sexual, violent and illicit drug scenes in movies invoke classification as unsuitable for very young children, although there is considerable variation between nations about what is permissible to screen to children. Parents do not have time to research the content of all movies and value movie classifications as a way of helping them avoid inappropriate, possibly disturbing, content. This brings us to the widely supported proposal that smoking should not be banned in movies, but that all but manifestly anti-smoking scenes—even those where smoking is only "implied"—should cause a movie to be classified as "R". Under the Smoke Free Movies policy, this would mean that even one instance of smoking would see a movie classified as being equivalent to the Motion Picture Association of America’s standard for those depicting "adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements", where such scenes are often sustained. Is this an equivalence that many in the community would find reasonable?"

"For example, the US-based Smoke Free Movies site currently rates the new Batman movie The Dark Knight as "promoting smoking" because, amid a cast of thousands, one minor character smokes a cigar. While activists dedicated to eradicating smoking in children’s movies engage in organised complaining about such closely monitored incidents, it seems improbable that many ordinary citizens would spontaneously rise up in community protest about such minor usage in the way they would about the sort of sustained adult content that currently sees movies classified as unsuitable for children, should those movies be not so classified. In this respect, arguments based on the unacceptability to the community of any smoking scenes are highly unlikely to find widespread support and be seen as overly extreme solutions proposed by single-minded interest groups." ...

"If even a single instance of smoking were to consign a movie to R status because of its potential to influence children to smoke, immediate parallel questions arise about a wide range of other potentially adverse role modelling cues in films. Smoking causes massive health problems, but in that it is not unique. Globally, large-scale health and social problems flow from many activities that also often appear in movies. These include crime, physical inactivity, over-eating, excessive use of alcohol, unsafe sex, speeding and dangerous driving, gambling, risk taking such as extreme sport and adventure, motor cycle use and helmet-less cycling. For example, by the same reasoning that movies showing smoking might normalise or glamorise tobacco use, it could be argued that film should never show positive scenes of gluttony or actors enthusiastically eating fast food because of the obesity epidemic and millions of overweight and obese children struggling to control their weight. Countless comedy scripts would need to go back to the drawing board. Scenes of people drinking alcohol might be excised from children’s movies—particularly if those drinking seemed to be enjoying it—because this might seed inappropriate ideas about alcohol in tender minds. All car chases and speeding scenes of course would be restricted to adult movies." ...

"an illustration of how such inconsistency plays out in practice comes from which rates the 2008 What Happens in Vegas, starring Cameron Diaz, as a "thumbs up/pink lung" because it contains no smoking. However, it does contain binge drinking, failure to wear seat belts, intoxication leading to possibly unprotected sex, gambling and a parody of spousal abuse."

The Rest of the Story

I agree with Dr. Chapman's analysis and I commend him for having the courage to publicly express his criticism of a proposal being championed by many mainstream anti-smoking groups.

To me, what this article highlights is the single-mindedness, the issue-specific focus of today's anti-smoking movement and the inability of the movement to see beyond the narrow blinders that restrict its vision to nothing but smoking. There are a lot of health risks beyond smoking and there are a lot of health-related problems with movie content beyond the depiction of cigarette smoking. But because of their narrow, single-minded view, anti-smoking groups ignore everything but the smoking.

As Dr. Chapman points out, Smoke Free Movies applauded the film "What Happens in Vegas" and gave it a favorable "thumbs up/pink lung" rating because it didn't contain a single portrayal of cigarette smoking. However, the movie does depict "binge drinking, failure to wear seat belts, intoxication leading to possibly unprotected sex, gambling and a parody of spousal abuse."

Is this a film to which responsible public health practitioners should be giving a thumbs up?

Thumbs down to smoking, but thumbs up to binge drinking.
Thumbs down to smoking, but thumbs up to intoxication.
Thumbs down to smoking, but thumbs up to spousal abuse.

This is the message that Smoke Free Movies and other anti-smoking groups are actually sending to the public through their support of the very narrow-minded "R-rating for any depiction of smoking" policy.

As Dr. Chapman concludes: "If the more reasonable proposition were promoted that smoking ought to be considered as one element within movie rating panels’ assessments of how a movie should be rated, I would predict that many within government and the movie industry would be more receptive and more progress would be made."

Unfortunately, reason is not something that characterizes the anti-smoking movement. It has become more of a religion or an ideology than a specialized field of practice within the scope of public health.

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