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Rate Smoking Movies 'R'
R Rating
An R-rating for smoking will cut kids' exposure to smoking in movies by at least half, preventing almost 200,000 adolescents from starting to smoke every year and averting 50-60,000 tobacco deaths a year in coming decades.

The National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine has concluded that an "R" rating would reduce adolescent smoking initiation and recommends that smoking be integrated into R-rating criteria.

How the “R” for smoking works

Rating tobacco "R" is not meant to keep teens out of more movies. Instead, it creates a voluntary market incentive for producers to keep smoking out of movies marketed to teens.

On average, movies rated PG-13 gross twice as much at the box office as R-rated movies do. No producer will think it worthwhile to release a film rated "R" for smoking alone. The result will be less smoking in future movies rated PG-13 and younger.

Movie ratings are set by the film industry

Mainstream movies are products made with a market in mind. Producers and directors routinely calibrate language, violence and sexual situations to win a desired rating. Because the studios themselves run the system, they do not consider it censorship. According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA):

The basic mission of the rating system is a simple one: To offer parents some advance information about movies so that parents can decide what movies they want their children to see or not to see.

This is especially critical in the case of tobacco because children of non-smoking parents are the most vulnerable. Heavy exposure to on-screen smoking makes these adolescents 4.1 times more likely to start smoking, compared to "only" 1.6 times more likely when their parents smoke.

Decades of MPAA precedent

The film industry should take tobacco promotion at least as seriously as it takes cursing. Here’s how the MPAA rating has long dealt with “f” words:
More than one such expletive must lead the Rating Board to issue a film an "R" rating, as must even one of these words used in a sexual context. These films can be rated less severely, however, if by a special vote the Rating Board feels that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents.

The MPAA can update its ratings — and protect public health — simply by substituting the phrase “smoking imagery” for “expletive” in its existing policy. Example:

Even one use of tobacco or presentation of tobacco advertising or similar pro-tobacco imagery must lead the Rating Board to issue a film an R rating. These films can be rated less severely, however, if by a special vote, the Rating Board feels that the presentation of tobacco clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use or represents accurately the smoking behavior of an actual historical figure, so that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents.

Ratings already shape content

Here’s just one example of how major studios calibrate a script or a final edit to win a desired rating:

"The whole mood at Disney changed," says [director John] Stockwell, who was ordered by the studio to tame Crazy/Beautiful's R-rated script and deliver a PG-13 movie. In the final version…the heroine will no longer smoke pot onscreen, the F word will be used only once (the limit for a PG-13 movie), and no one will say "three-way." Time, July 2, 2001

The public strongly supports an R-rating for smoking movies

An independent national survey conducted in 2006 found that 70 percent of adults support R-rating movies that show smoking, unless the film clearly demonstrates the dangers of smoking or it is necessary to represent smoking of a real historical figure. Public support for the R-rating increased by more than 10% from previous years.

What arguments are heard against the R-rating?

"The MPAA already considers smoking when assigning ratings."

Answer: On May 10, 2007, the MPAA announced that it would "consider" smoking in assigning ratings. In the two years since the announcement, the MPAA has not elevated the rating of any film for smoking. It has added “smoking” to the descriptor block of some film ratings, but tends to ignore the smoking content of youth-rated films intended for wide release. MPAA ratings currently provide neither filmmakers nor the public reliable guidance on smoking content. (Details)

"An R-rating would restrict creative freedom."

Answer: An R-rating hardly means oppression or oblivion. From 1999 to 2008, the MPAA gave 40 percent (692/1719) of movies released to theaters an “R” rating. Over the same period, 58 percent of films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar® — and 60 percent of the winners — were rated “R.” When tobacco imagery is rated “R” in future, movie makers will remain free to include smoking in any film. They will make choices with ratings in mind, just as they do today.

"To tell actors not to smoke a cigarette in a movie when they portray a Winston Churchill is a historic movie is ludicrous and going too far."

Answer: In fact, the R-rating policy includes a specific exception for depictions of real historical figures who actually smoked — including Winston Churchill. The 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, about broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, would still have been rated PG, for example. (There is also an exception for films that show the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke.)

"Banning smoking in movies is going too far."

Answer: No one is proposing to ban smoking from movies, just rate films with smoking "R" to reduce exposure to smoking in the G, PG, and (especially) PG-13 movies that kids see most.

“It’s a form of censorship.”

Answer: The proposal is to integrate smoking into the existing, voluntary rating system run by the film industry itself. No government agency is involved, so there are no First Amendment issues. (More on the censorship argument.)

“Tobacco is a legal product.”

Answer: Violence, rough language and sexual expression not judged obscene by community standards are also perfectly legal, yet the film industry’s rating system applies to them. Why not include tobacco? Unlike four-letter words, smoking kills millions.

"It's a slippery slope."

Read what an entertainment lawyer says

Learn more about why an "R" makes sense

Answer: People who object to certain kinds of content, from graphic violence to bare skin, regularly target the film industry. That’s why the rating system exists. But on-screen smoking in kid-rated movies is the only imagery conclusively proven to lead to more U.S. deaths than criminal violence, drunk driving and illegal drugs combined. In addition, the tobacco industry and the film industry have a long history of commercial collaboration. This is a major public medical issue, not a matter of bad taste.

"Kids will still see R-rated movies."

Answer: Kids now see half as many R-rated films as they do youth-rated films. After the R-rating gets smoking out of youth-rated films — which account for more than half of their exposure — kids will still get exposure from R-rated films. That’s why effective anti-tobacco spots are also part of the overall solution.

Conclusion? Anything less than an R-rating treats nothing except the studios’ growing public relations problem.

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