National class-action lawsuit

On 25 February 2016, a national class-action lawsuit was filed against the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the major studios who run it — Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros.—along with the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).

What does the lawsuit claim? The companies and trade groups negligently awarded youth-ratings (PG, PG-13) to top-grossing films with tobacco imagery. The lawsuit contends:

• The MPAA and its studio members have known since 2003 that movies with smoking recruit large numbers of new, young smokers.

• The MPAA and its members also know 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 tobacco industry has a long history of exploiting mainstream movies to push smoking and tobacco brands.

• In the 1960s, the MPAA and NATO took on the role of reviewing and assigning age-ratings to films in the United States. Since 2003, more than half (54%) of films with smoking have been rated PG or PG-13.

• From 2012 to 2015, the four years covered by the lawsuit, '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 US children and adolescents.

What does the lawsuit seek? More than $5 million in relief. 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. The lawsuit also seeks that new films with smoking be R-rated.

Where was it filed? Forsyth v. MPAA et al. (3:16-cv-00935) was assigned to US District Judge Richard Seeborg, Northern District of California.

On 10 November 2016, US District Judge Seeborg ruled against the plaintiffs and dismissed the case. The MPAA, studios and theaters argued successfully that the ratings were “opinions” and not subject to restrictions on commercial speech that were designed to protect the public interest. The scientific evidence that smoking in movies causes kids to smoke was not at issue. The court simply said that, despite the science showing that onscreen smoking causes kids to smoke, the MPAA is free to award youth ratings to movies with smoking.