Reduced Smoking in Hollywood Movies

Posted on August 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a government agency, has listed cigarettes in movies as a key factor in teen smoking. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has said that studies show a clear link showing that kids who watch movies with smoking are more likely to smoke.
So, it is a small step forward that the CDCP announced last Thursday that scenes of smoking in high-grossing films fell to 1,935 incidents last year, down 49% from the recent peak of 3,967 in 2005.
This may in part be the result of a change in 2007 that includes smoking incidence in MPAA ratings, following four years of requests from state attorneys general and other groups. The MPAA has refused, however, to make smoking an automatic R-rating, even with an exclusion for historical accuracy in films like “Good Night and Good Luck.” “On April 22, 2009, the MPAA interrupted North Carolina Senate debate on landmark smokefree workplace legislation to demand a loophole for smoking in film productions. ‘The motion picture industry worries the bill would prevent actors from smoking on screen,’ reported the Associated Press,” according to Smoke Free Movies. They were successful in getting an exemption written into the law.
A significant factor in reduced smoking onscreen may also be pressure from websites that specifically review smoking in movies. Smoke Free Movies, a project of Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, has a directory of actors with more than three smoking roles. Scene Smoking from Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, shows how smoking is shown in films, classifying it by whether it is the lead actor, a credited non-star, or an extra, whether the brand is shown, and whether the smoker is a good guy or a bad guy.
The CDCP says:
Although the behaviors and attitudes of family and friends are the main influences on adolescent decisions to use tobacco, the media–films, television, and the Internet–also influence these decisions.5-8 According to recent studies,
* Current movie heroes are three to four times more likely to smoke than are people in real life.5,6,9
* Young people in the United States watch an average of three movies a week, which contain an average of five smoking episodes each, adding up to about 15 exposures to smoking a week. Young people may be exposed to more smoking in movies than in real life.
* A teen whose favorite star smokes is significantly more likely to be a smoker.
* Approximately two-thirds of films seen today show tobacco use, including films that are rated PG or PG-13 and intended for young audiences.
* Films depicting tobacco use are increasing and are reinforcing misleading perceptions that smoking is a widespread, socially desirable, and normal behavior, and they fail to convey the long-term consequences of tobacco use.
Smoke Free movies notes, “The 390,000 kids recruited to smoke each year by the smoking they see on screen are worth $4 billion in lifetime sales to the tobacco companies. And that’s just in the United States.”
The CDCP has a video about the influence of movie smoking on teens called “Scene Smoking: Cigarettes, Cinema and the Myth of Cool.” It is available for view online or by DVD.

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

4 Replies to “Reduced Smoking in Hollywood Movies”

  1. It’s absurd. I could see complaining if movies are throwing in cigarettes as product-placement deals, but if smoking is something central to a character or story, it’s none of the CDC’s damn business. If we start letting politicians and beaurocrats dictate art, we will decimate one of the only worthwhile industries our country still has. Will screenwriters next have their work vetted to make sure it doesn’t depict fat people, (or skinny women, cause that causes anorexia) or underage sex or drinking, or domestic abuse or fast driving?

  2. Thanks, Kenneth. One of the proposals the MPAA has refused to consider is requiring studios to disclose any product placement deals with tobacco companies. One studio has agreed to do this voluntarily but the others do not. I would like to see mandatory disclosure of all product placement agreements. By definition, those are not central to the character or story and only serve as a distraction. No one is asking bureaucrats to dictate art (though of course corporate executives are now dictating art and I’m not sure that’s much better). As you will see if you read the post, I everyone I cited, private groups and the CDCP, is about disclosure only.

  3. Interesting post, cool blog. Makes me wonder about the psychology of rebelling and individuating in times when kids see narrowing options for their future—does this contribute to that old-saw 50’s sort of faux-wisdom about living fast and dying young? And if you’re a vampire, what’s the worry about dying when your whole “problem” is that you cannot die?
    While I agree that filmmakers should be honest about who pays them to promote what, as for integrity there’s no point in demanding it any more from Hollywood than from Wall Street or Washington.
    These sorts of things tend to make me think of Huck Finn and the art of getting kids to paint fences, or not smoke—you have to make being healthy look more fun than being unhealthy. As for being “part of one’s character,” perhaps the very psychology of anxiety and the need to be seen contributes to the disproportionate amount of smoking amongst media-makers from actors to writers to producers.

  4. Thanks for covering this very important media-and-health issue, Movie Mom. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called movie smoking the biggest media risk to kids — for good reason. About 360,000 teens alive today, smoking because of their exposure to on-screen smoking, will die of a tobacco-induced disease. It may be years off, but the addiction happens NOW.
    Most people don’t know the history of commercial collaboration between tobacco and film companies. The fact is, independent researchers doing studies of thousands of teens, niot only in the US but in other countries, are simply confirming what the tobacco companies have known all along: movies sell smoking.
    It’s important for parents to take the R-rating seriously, if only because these films have the most smoking in them and account for about half of teens’ exposure. But parents should also know that they can’t rely on MPAA smoking “descriptors” in the ratings to tell them if a film has smoking. Only a small fraction of PG-13 films with smoking released since 2007 include such “fine print” descriptors.
    Finally, parents — as taxpayers — should be aware that in most states their tax dollars help subsidize the production of Hollywood films, even kid-rated films with smoking: $1.4 billion was offered to Hollywood producers by state “incentive” programs in 2008, for example. It’s been estimated that over $800 million went to smoking films and about half a billion dollars to kid-rated films with smoking. These films ned to be made ineligible for public subsidies that undermine parents and all the money invested in tobacco prevention programs.
    To learn more, visit the University of California, San Francisco, web site: smokefree (partners with many medical, public health, civic and parent groups). And feel free to contact us if you or your group would like to get involved.

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