Ontario estimates tobacco deaths, costs from on-screen smoking

On 8 September, opening day of the Toronto International Film Festival, the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit (OTRU) released a new report detailing the cost in lives and money when US movies with smoking are dumped into Canada’s youth market. 

DOWNLOAD: Youth Exposure to Tobacco in Movies in Ontario, Canada: 2004-2014

Analyzing nearly 1,600 top-grossing movies released in Ontario from 2004 to 2014, researchers found that Ontario’s film rating practices make nearly all movies with tobacco accessible to adolescents.

• 90 percent of the movies were youth-rated (G/PG/14A) by the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB).

• 86 percent of movies with smoking were youth-rated in Ontario, compared to 54% in the United States.

• Of 29,620 tobacco incidents in the movies, 85 percent were in youth-rated films, twice the number in the U.S.

• 89 percent of all tobacco impressions (an index of audience exposure) were delivered by movies youth-rated in Ontario, compared to 55 percent in the U.S.

Using US CDC models, the Ontario researchers conservatively project:

• At least 185,000 children and teens aged 0-17 living in Ontario today will be recruited to cigarette smoking by their exposure to on-screen smoking. 

• These future Ontario smokers will incur at least $1.1 billion in health care costs attributable to their exposure to onscreen smoking. 

• At least 59,000 of these smokers recruited to smoking by exposure to movies with tobacco imagery are projected to eventually die prematurely from smoking-related disease. 

The Ontario researchers project that an 18A rating in the province (equivalent to an R-rating) that reduced kids’ exposure by at least half would “avert more than 30,000 tobacco related deaths and save more than half a billion dollars (CAN $568 million) in healthcare costs.”

Canadian, UK and European film ratings are less restrictive, as a rule, allowing U.S. movie studios to dump heavier-smoking films with smoking, rated R in the U.S. for other reasons, into youth markets around the world. The World Health Organization has urged all signatories of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, including Canada, to adopt restrictive “adult” rating for movies with smoking and to end generous public production subsidies for such films. 

To build its analysis, the report by the University of Toronto's Rita Luk and Robert Schwartz used tobacco content data from Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, a project of Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails (scenesmoking.org) and OFRB classification data from the Ontario Coalition for Smoke-Free Movies.

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Prepared by
Jono Polansky, Onbeyond LLC
Consultant to the University of California, San Francisco, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education