Heaviest-smoking US films cleared for kids in Canada

Ontario fights the toxic dumper next door

Both the United States and Canada have taken steps to stop tobacco promotion to children and teens. In fact, Canada has gone substantially further, banning tobacco advertising and product placement altogether.

But Canada's public health defense is being subverted by the powerful US film industry, which dumps R-rated films — packed with tobacco images proven to recruit large numbers of kids to smoke — into Canada's youth market for the sake of windfall profits.

A blockbuster report from the University of Toronto's Ontario Tobacco Research Unit (OTRU) describes this trafficking and its life-and-death consequences.

Researchers conclude that from 2002 to 2018, 73 percent of films that were R-rated in the US were branded with youth-ratings in Ontario. Because R-rated films are packed with twice as much smoking, on average, Ontario kids potentially got a much heavier dose of toxic tobacco exposure.

Result #1 | Seventy percent more US movies with smoking had access to Ontario's lucrative teen market than in the United States (1,200 vs. 700 smoking films).

Result #2 | Kids in Ontario were eligible to see more than twice as many on-screen tobacco incidents as their US counterparts (39,200 vs. 18,500 tobacco incidents).

Result #3 | In Ontario, 87 percent of tobacco impressions were delivered by youth-rated films, compared to about half in the United States.

Canada, a party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is not the only nation where film rating loopholes leave youth populations exposed. But Ontario's detailed analysis covering nearly two decades should make the sirens go off on several continents. Toxic dumping of US movies with smoking into global youth markets is wiping out hard-won gains against traditional tobacco advertising.

The loss to Ontario? The report says 59,000 additional tobacco deaths in a generation and $1.1 billion in extra medical costs will likely turn out to be underestimates.

What's in it for Hollywood? If weak rules allow giant US media companies to dump R-rated movies with smoking over the border, it's free money. Even when we succeed in R-rating smoking in the US, it will not help Ontario or London, Warsaw or Lagos if these films are re-rated for teens again — for private gain.

The WHO FCTC (Article 13) offers practical guidance for stopping tobacco promotion, including in film. Ontario is documenting how US films spread harm worldwide — starting right next door.

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Download the OTRU report | University of Toronto media release