China's media survey finds ashtray half empty, half full

Each year, tobacco prevention experts in China spotlight films and TV shows with the most smoking

The Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (Beijing) released the winners of its Dirty Ashtray Awards on Friday, June 21.

The top award — meaning the work with the most smoking, based on a survey of the thirty most popular movies and TV shows each year — went to Dying to Survive, a drama about leukemia patients. Two more went to Hidden Man, described as a "gangster movie," and Drug Hunter, a TV series about the drug trade.

Progress uneven | Xu Guihua, a former deputy director of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that the Association is finding less smoking in films and TV shows than in 2007, when surveys began.

Films in 2018 included 47 percent fewer smoking scenes. Smoking scenes in TV shows declined by 80 percent.

When announcing the awards, the Association also released an open letter to the country's film and television industry, noting:

Tobacco-related scenes in films and TV series are usually presented relating to fashion, beauty and maturity, which greatly impairs people's awareness of the harm of tobacco and plays an important role in luring adolescents to smoke.

Policy persuasion | China has no film ratings. But, with urging from health experts, China's media regulators first issued rules against "excessive" smoking in 2006.

In 2009, the country warned that production houses not observing onscreen smoking policies could lose public financing. In 2011, smoking was explicitly made a factor in national and local licenses to show a work publicly.*

The standards also apply to imported films and TV shows. In 2013, the Association objected to Marlboro brand displays in the Comcast (Universal) film Rush. In the end, the film was not included in the quota of foreign films accepted for distribution in China.

Global implications | China's efforts to cap tobacco promotion is important to its own public health. But it also has global implications because China is such a valuable market for US studios.

How high are the stakes? Like many blockbuster films, 70 percent of box office for Avengers: Endgame (PG-13, Disney) came not from the US but from countries that are party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. $614 million came from China alone. 

Is it coincidence that smoking in Hollywood's biggest-budget, fictional films has dropped by 90 percent in recent years? 

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* In 2018, China reorganized SARFT. The National Radio and Television Administration remains cabinet-level. The State Film Administration and the Administration of Press and Publication are now parts of the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee.