Smoking in the movies

Ear-shattering explosions? Check. Gore splattered across the screen? No problem. Graphic sex scenes, or maybe a little torture porn? Bring it on. In Hollywood, anything goes these days -- except cigarette smoking.

Rarely in the history of motion pictures have the forces of censorship been as successful as anti-smoking crusaders have been recently. Last year, after congressional hearings on the issue and a public call for a crackdown by 32 state attorneys general, the Motion Picture Assn. of America agreed to consider tobacco use along with sex and violence when determining a film's rating. Most of the major studios, meanwhile, have promised to either discourage or forbid smoking in youth-oriented films. That still doesn't satisfy activist groups such as the American Legacy Foundation or the Smoke Free Movies project at UC San Francisco, which demand an R rating for any movie that depicts smoking (biopics about historical figures are excepted).

To be sure, these groups have a point, one that was brought home Thursday when the National Cancer Institute released a comprehensive report on the media's influence on youth smoking. The agency analyzed studies from around the world, finding strong evidence that children exposed to on-screen smoking have a more positive attitude toward cigarettes and that there's a link between youth smoking and exposure to movies. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and although cigarettes have fallen out of favor, about 20% of the adult population still smokes.

But how much censorship is too much when it comes to protecting public health? A cigarette can convey a tremendous amount of information about a character -- independence, anxiety, toughness or weakness, desperation and, yes, sex appeal. To rate a movie adults-only simply because a character takes a puff would reduce choices for filmmakers and audiences. Moreover, it's hard to see why smoking is more pernicious than other on-screen activities we take for granted, such as drug and alcohol use, violence and risky sexual behavior (all of which, like cigarette smoking, represent public health threats).

There are better approaches than messing around with the ratings system. Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that the major studios had agreed to include anti-tobacco public service announcements produced by the state at the beginning of DVDs of films rated G, PG or PG-13 that depict smoking. The National Cancer Institute report concluded that these messages are effective in countering the glamorizing effects of on-screen tobacco use. The spots should be shown in theaters as well, though that would be harder to arrange because they'd cut into screen time normally devoted to paid ads or trailers. But if the MPAA responds to political pressure, the National Assn. of Theatre Owners might too.

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