Motion Picture Association of America

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is the trade group that protects the business interests of the six major US film studios: Comcast (Universal), Disney, Fox, Sony, Time Warner (Warner Bros.) and Viacom (Paramount).

The MPAA manages the US film rating system through its Classification and Rating Administration. The MPAA and its ratings partner, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), can implement a solution to smoking in youth-rated movies within the existing ratings system. The decision will be made by the MPAA's board of directors, who represent the major studios, with NATO's concurrence.

The major studios have known since at least 2003 that exposure to on-screen smoking is a physical health hazard for young audiences, but has refused to adopt the R-rating for future films with smoking recommended by national and international health authorities and state Attorneys General. Instead, the MPAA has been limited by its studio board members to obscuring the issue.

Before 2007 | The MPAA claims smoking by characters younger than 18 (such as high school students) is a factor in film ratings.

In practice | Of the 82 top-grossing US films showing youths smoking 2002-2017, 47 percent have been youth-rated (PG or PG-13); 53 percent were R-rated for other reasons. Only three of these youth-rated films — and none of the R-rated films — include a "smoking" descriptor in its rating.

May 2007 | After consulting with the Harvard School of Public Health in 2006, the MPAA announces that all smoking will be a factor in its film ratings.

In practice | Of all top-grossing films with smoking released from May 2007 through 2017, 49 percent have been youth-rated (PG or PG-13). The MPAA has assigned a smoking descriptor to only one R-rated film, a limited-release Polish documentary.

The MPAA's May 2007 annoumncement also said it might label films with smoking to ensure "specific information is front and center for parents as they make decisions for their kids."

In practice | From May 2007 through 2017, only 11 percent of all top-grossing, youth-rated films with smoking carried a "smoking" descriptor in their MPAA ratings. In all, films that the MPAA left unlabeled for smoking delivered 80 percent of all youth-rated tobacco impressions to US moviegoers of all ages. Details

2009 | The MPAA interrupts North Carolina State Senate debate on landmark smokefree workplace legislation to demand a last-minute loophole for smoking in film productions. "The motion picture industry worries the bill would prevent actors from smoking on screen," reported the Associated Press.

News outlets reported, erroneously, that New York already exempted film productions from clean indoor air measures. California provides for an exemption, but producers choose to use non-tobacco products, which do not need one. Massachusetts exempts film sets from tonbacco-free regulations, but only if local authorities approve. Florida explicitly rejected such an exemption in 2002. New York City exempts live theatrical productions, but only with a state-granted waiver. 

After the MPAA intervened, North Carolina's 2009 smokefree workplace law granted an exemption to tobacco smoking by performers on a "motion picture, television, theater or other live production set."

2007-2011 | The MPAA repeatedly claims that about 75 percent of films with smoking are already R-rated.

In practice | From 2002 to 2017, 36 percent of all top-grossing US films were R-rated. Of the films with smoking, 47 percent were R-rated. 

Even if the MPAA bases its claim on all of the films that it rates (for a fee) rather than those films actually seen on national theater screens, its sample is strongly biased toward R-rated films and away from the films released by the large film companies whose commercial interests it represents.

Why the film sample matters | From 2007 to 2017, the MPAA reports rating about 8,000 feature-length films. But only 2,300 (29%) of them were top-grossing films, which account for more than 95 percent of domestic ticket sales. While a majority of the low-grossing and no-grossing films reviewed by the MPAA are R-rated, only 36 percent of top-grossing films that people actually see in theaters are R-rated. And fewer than half of top-grossing films with smoking are already R-rated for other reasons: 47 percent, not 75 percent.

How MPAA claims were received | Months before the MPAA's 2007 announcement, its own consultant, Harvard School of Public Health, cautioned that merely labeling films with tobacco "would be the equivalent of the tobacco industry cynically putting smoking warnings on cigarette packages."

After the announcement, senior US Senators warned that "the MPAA’s adoption of a highly subjective policy is not enough to curb the influence of smoking in the movies on the health of children." Leading US health and medical groups also criticized the MPAA's announcement:

WARNING: Watching movies with smoking poses a risk to your childrens' health...The decision by the MPAA to "consider smoking as a factor" when rating movies is inadequate. Smoking in movies needs to be rated "R" now.

State Attorneys General address the studios directly | In September 2007, Vermont's Attorney General, William Sorrell, leader of state AGs engaged with the film and tobacco industries on smoking issues, declined a meeting with the MPAA, citing its failure to substantiate its rating announcement, explaining:

We had hoped that the MPAA and its member studios would follow the Harvard School of Public Health recommendation [solicited by the MPAA] that depictions of tobacco smoking be eliminated from films accessible to children and youth.

The state Attorneys General suspended contact with the MPAA in 2007 and have instead addressed the major studios and independents directly. View letters

Where the MPAA stands now | The MPAA does not mention "tobacco" or "smoking" anywhere in its official Classification and Ratings Rules, last revised in 2010. Its Advertising Administration Rules (2014) bars distributors only from showing "illegal smoking by minors" in advertising materials.

MPAA's web site no longer carries any information about its May 2007 announcement about the ratings treatment of smoking. Web searches find no MPAA public statement about the issue of on-screen smoking since 2012, the year the US Surgeon General concluded that exposure to on-screen smoking causes young people to start smoking.