National class-action lawsuit filed against Hollywood for negligently rating movies with smoking PG and PG-13
Ever since we launched the Smoke Free Movies campaign in March 2001, I have been wondering when there would be a lawsuit against the MPAA and the major studios it represents for continuing to allow smoking in movies it rates as suitable for youth.
On February 25, 2016 the inevitable happened.
A national class-action lawsuit was filed against the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Disney (NYSE: DIS), Paramount (NASDAQ: VIAB), Sony (NYSE: SNE), Fox (NASDAQ: FOX), Universal (NASDAQ: CMCSA), Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX) and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), on the grounds that these companies and trade groups negligently awarded youth-ratings (G, PG, PG-13) to top-grossing films with tobacco imagery.
The lawsuit states that the defendants misrepresented these films as suitable and appropriate for children and adolescents despite having been informed repeatedly since 2003 that films with tobacco recruit large numbers of U.S. children to smoke and that R-rating future films with tobacco imagery would avert as many as one million tobacco deaths in this generation of U.S. children.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by Keller Grover LLP, states that the tobacco industry has a long history of exploiting major motion pictures to push tobacco and its brands and that of the 1,100 top-grossing films with tobacco released in the U.S. since 2003, more than half (54%) were rated PG or PG-13. In that past four years, 2012-2015, youth-rated films still accounted for half (50%) of tobacco exposure delivered to theater audiences of all ages.
The MPAA, the trade group for the major Hollywood studios, voluntarily took on the role of rating all Hollywood movies in the 1960s and claims to this day that American parents have confidence in these ratings. The MPAA has continued to rate films to make them accessible to kids while ignoring the fact that the film’s tobacco content was literally poisonous to kids. It is about time that the major studios and the MPAA-NATO rating regime accept liability for their actions.
The complaint states that the defendants’ “negligent, false and improper rating and certification of films with tobacco imagery as suitable and appropriate for children under the age of seventeen” caused the tobacco addiction of 1.1 million U.S. children and adolescents in the years 2012-2015 alone.
During this period, the lawsuit states, 33 percent of PG-13 films featured tobacco imagery at Disney; 44 percent at Fox; 35 percent at Paramount (Viacom); 60 percent at Sony; 44 percent at Universal (Comcast); and 36 percent at Warner Bros. (Time Warner).
The lawsuit asks for more than $5 million in relief. Of course, the American public has spent $7.8 billion to buy tickets to youth-rated movies with smoking released by MPAA-member companies between 2012 and 2015— movies that should have been subject to the R-rating Smokefree Movies and others have been urging since 2001.
The suit is also seeking a R-rating for new movies with smoking.
The complaint states that children’s and teens’ risk from smoking on screen has been validated by, among other health authorities, the National Cancer Institute of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (2008); the U.S. Surgeon General (2012 and 2014), and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014).
R-rating future moves with smoking (with exceptions for films portraying only actual historical figures who smoked or depicting the actual, serious health consequences of tobacco use) is endorsed by: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, American Public Health Association, Breathe California, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, New York State Department of Health, Truth Initiative, World Health Organization (WHO), and others.
Hopefully, the studios, their parent companies, and their investors will be paying close attention to this lawsuit. It’s the kind of trouble tobacco companies get themselves into.
Everyone concerned about smoking in movies — the largest single stimulus for youth smoking in the U.S. today — should read this lawsuit and use it to educate and engage the public and policymakers.
Download and read the complaint (60 pp.). It's written in English, not legalese.