Comcast, Fox wreck Hollywood progress on smoking

An annual public health survey of top-grossing US movies, released today, reports that most major movie studios have dramatically cut back on smoking in their kid-rated movies in the past two decades. Against the tide, only Comcast’s Universal and Fox (now owned by Disney) are pushing more tobacco imagery proven to recruit kids to smoke.

Breathe California and the University of California, San Francisco, also report that nearly three-quarters of smoking characters in Hollywood’s smokiest film genre, biographical dramas, are actually invented. Bio-dramas exaggerate the amount of smoking in youth-rated films and have reversed health progress industry-wide.

As a result of both these trends, US youth-rated movies delivered 10.3 billion tobacco impressions to moviegoers of all ages in the US and Canada in 2018, double the number in 2017 (5.1 billion) and triple the number in 2015 (2.9 billion).

Comcast and Fox accounted for 88 percent of audience exposure to onscreen smoking in 2018. Sony, Time Warner, and independent film companies accounted for 12 percent. Kid-rated films from Disney and Viacom’s Paramount were all smokefree last year.

The US film industry first learned of the physical risk to children from onscreen smoking in late 2003. The Motion Picture Association of America’s refusal to update its R-rating to include most tobacco imagery is sharply questioned by health authorities, state Attorneys General, and by large investors.

The proposed R-rating update, aimed at reserving smoking for R-rated films industrywide, would exempt portrayals of actual historical people who smoked. Today’s report faults Hollywood for packing kid-rated bio-dramas with smoking, driving tobacco levels in PG-13 films to record extremes in 2018. At the same time, smoking in Hollywood's kid-rated purely fictional movies fell to the lowest level in seventeen years.

Namesakes of major studios still active today — including Columbia (now Sony), Fox (now Disney), Paramount (now Viacom), and Warner Bros. (now AT&T) — repeatedly collaborated with the US tobacco industry as far back as the late 1920s.*

Nearly a century later, the film survey report describes Hollywood's overall response to the scientific consensus that smoking onscreen recruits teens to smoke as "incoherent and unreliable."

In 2012, the US Surgeon General reported that the US tobacco industry deliberately exploited films for decades to promote smoking and concluded that exposure to onscreen smoking caused young people to smoke.

In 2016, the US CDC projected that exposure to onscreen smoking will recruit 6.4 million children in this generation to smoke and that two million of them would “die prematurely from diseases caused by smoking.”


Smoking in top-grossing US movies: 2018 is available at eScholarship.org/uc/item/55x9b9c1.

The report, report highlights, and a list of bio-drama films can be downloaded together at bit.ly/filmreport041019.


* Lum et al. (2008) Signed, sealed and delivered: "Big Tobacco" in Hollywood, 1927-1951. Tobacco Control 2008;17:313-323