Disney updates movie smoking policy, but leaves back door open

On June 29, 2015, The Walt Disney Company released its updated policy on smoking in youth-rated movies, promised by CEO Robert Iger at the company’s annual meeting. 

At that March 12 meeting, a shareholder asked Mr. Iger if Disney would “commit to an iron-clad policy that your PG-13 and youth-rated movies never show smoking.” Mr. Iger responded:

Well, the answer to that is “yes.” I will commit to that. We are extending our policy to prohibit smoking across the board — Marvel, Lucas[film], Pixar, Disney films — except when we are depicting an historical figure who may have smoked at the time of his life.

The policy published ten weeks later by Disney represents a step forward, but is short of “iron-clad.” Importantly, after 2015, smoking will be barred from new G, PG and PG-13 films marketed under the Disney, Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar labels. This expands Disney’s 2005 smokefree pledge to cover studio units that Disney has acquired since then.

Where’s Touchstone?

But another longtime Disney film label, Touchstone, is missing from Disney’s 2015 list. And that’s noticeable.

All but one PG-13 film with tobacco that Disney has released since 2011 carries the Touchstone label. Produced by DreamWorks Studios, which has a multi-year distribution agreement and taps $246 million in Disney loans, these films have delivered 5.2 billion tobacco impressions to domestic theater audiences alone.

Other policy exceptions

The Disney Company also reserves a couple of exceptions to its smokefree rule for Disney, Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar films:

•  …scenes that depict a historical figure who may have smoked at the time of his or her life; or

• portray cigarette smoking in an unfavorable light or emphasize the negative consequences of smoking.

The first exception closely follows the Smokefree Movies policy language endorsed by health experts worldwide, and is much tighter than what Disney has said before.

Unfortunately, the second exception is too subjective to be enforced in a consistent and predictable way. The Smokefree Movies exception is for a depiction that “unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use.”

Disney’s policy also neglects to update complementary policies such as anti-tobacco spots (limited to Disney’s kid-rated DVDs distributed in the US), tobacco product placement (left unexamined in Disney’s production chain) and an end to tobacco brand display (not mentioned at all). Disney also limits its policy to “cigarette smoking,” which leaves nearly 30 percent of on-screen tobacco incidents beyond its reach.

Shows why we need the R-rating

The good news is that Disney has kept its youth-rated movies 100 percent smokefree for the past two-and-a-half years — longer than any other major studio.

The bad news is that movie audiences have seen smoking in nearly one-third of Disney’s PG-13 movies since Disney adopted its first policy in 2005. Can parents trust a policy this porous to be effective in the future?

The smokefree pledge Disney has extended to its core brands is a welcome move. But until Disney treats Touchstone like its other film labels, audiences can’t assume that Disney is finally smokfree.  

In contrast, an R-rating standard that covers all films with tobacco across the movie industry would be far simpler and, the CDC says, will save a million lives.

Compare Hollywood studio policies on smoking with policies endorsed by global health authorities.

(Jonathan Polansky contributed to this analysis)