Hollywood set to filter on-screen smoking

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Times Staff Writer

Movies and cigarettes used to go together like Bogie and Bacall, with Hollywood and its stars glamorizing the habit on screen and off.

Now films could earn a tougher rating if their characters light up.

Under a policy announced Thursday, the Motion Picture Assn. of America said its movie raters would take into account “depictions that glamorize smoking or movies that feature pervasive smoking outside of a historic or other mitigating context.”

That makes smoking a major factor to be considered alongside violence, profanity, nudity and drug use by the MPAA’s rating board, the Classification and Rating Administration, when deciding the warning parents will get. For filmmakers and studios, the new policy complicates the creative process because a stricter rating can hurt ticket sales.


“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,” MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman said. “The appropriate response of the rating system is to give more information to parents on this issue.”

The change in policy is a partial victory for anti-smoking advocates and researchers, who have pressured the MPAA for years to take a tougher stance on the issue. The trade group, however, resisted calls for an even more radical proposal to give films with smoking a mandatory R rating, meaning children under 17 would not be allowed to see them without a parent or guardian.

Pressure had been building lately on Hollywood to finally do something about smoking in movies. This month, 32 state attorneys general publicly called for the MPAA to give films containing smoking an R rating unless they reflected the dangers of the habit or portrayed a historical figure.

The attorneys general based their call on recommendations from the Harvard School of Public Health. Glickman, whose parents died from lung-related illnesses, had asked the school last fall to summarize the scientific evidence about the effect of on-screen smoking on children. Its findings, presented to the MPAA in February, found that urgent action was needed because of the strong influence of the films.

The association’s move marks a change from when the late Jack Valenti led the organization. At a 2004 Senate hearing, Valenti said that although smoking was “a nasty, smelly, vicious kind of habit,” he opposed adding it as a factor in the movie rating system he created in 1968. Doing so would open the door to advocacy groups for the environment, obesity, alcoholism and other causes to demand similar treatment, he said.

But the MPAA said Thursday that smoking was markedly different from any other issue and that it was not considering any other changes to the rating system.


For decades, some of Hollywood’s most memorable films featured smoking by the likes of Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Groucho Marx.

James Dean can be seen holding a cigarette in posters for “Rebel Without a Cause.” Audrey Hepburn dangled an elegant cigarette holder between her fingers in some of the most memorable images from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Sharon Stone smoked her way though her shockingly risque police interrogation in “Basic Instinct.”

Among current releases, “Lucky You” with Drew Barrymore includes smoking and is rated PG-13. Box-office hit “Spider-Man 3,” also rated PG-13, features a cigar-puffing newspaper editor.

According to a review by the film rating board, the percentage of movies with “even a fleeting glimpse of smoking” dropped to 52% in July 2006 from 60% in July 2004. Of the movies released during that time period that contained smoking, three-quarters received an R rating anyway for other adult themes, the MPAA said.

But research by Dartmouth Medical School released this week found that 74% of 534 recent box-office hits contained smoking, and that many of the movies were rated PG-13. That study also found German teenagers who had seen the most smoking in movies -- usually major Hollywood films -- were nearly twice as likely to have tried cigarettes as those who saw the least amount of on-screen smoking. Those findings mirrored a 2003 U.S. study by Dartmouth that found that seeing smoking in movies nearly tripled the risk that children ages 10 to 14 would try cigarettes.

Stanton A. Glantz, a UC San Francisco professor of medicine who runs a group called Smoke Free Movies, said his findings also conflicted with the MPAA board’s data. A study he co-authored found 72% of all live-action films from 2004 through 2006 contained smoking. He said the new policy didn’t go far enough.


“Rather than putting in a clean, easily understandable, easily enforceable rule, that if you want to put smoking in just like if you want to put nudity in you’re going to get an R, they’re going to ‘take it into consideration,’ whatever that means,” Glantz said.

But the MPAA said a mandatory R rating was unnecessary and would deprive parents of context. They cited last year’s “Superman Returns,” which was rated PG-13 and showed Superman repeatedly blowing out Lois Lane’s cigarette.

“We’re trying to bring the same judgment to this that we bring to other factors in the rating system,” said Joan Graves, head of the rating board. Films whose ratings are affected by smoking will include explanations, such as “glamorized smoking” or “pervasive smoking.”

Some advocacy groups, such as the American Cancer Society, called the MPAA’s decision an important first step.

Nell Minow, who reviews films as the Movie Mom for Yahoo Movies, said she believed that film raters would be under pressure to give movies with smoking stricter ratings.

“If they give a PG rating, for example, to a movie where teenagers are smoking, they’ll get a lot of feedback,” Minow said.


The MPAA also announced Thursday that it was joining Hollywood Unfiltered, an organization whose members include the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and other groups that raises awareness of the effect of smoking in movies and on TV.

“We appreciate that they, like us, are working to find the delicate balance between addressing important health concerns and safeguarding free expression,” the Directors Guild said in a statement.