A recent decision by the Motion Picture Association of America to bestow an “R” (Restricted) rating upon films that glorify smoking has drawn criticism from some public health officials who argue that the measure is not harsh enough.

A few industry insiders have also denounced the new regulations, saying they will limit artistic expression.

Last month, the MPAA announced that smoking will now be considered along with profanity, nudity, sex and violence as part of the ratings system.

The rating board will consider whether the smoking is pervasive, whether it is glamorized, and if there is a historic context or other extenuating circumstances around the smoking, according to Dan Glickman of the MPAA.

Movies such as 2005’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” for instance, would be exempt. The film, which is set in 1953, features several historically accurate scenes in which characters smoke cigarettes in the workplace and in restaurants.

The MPAA stopped short of mandating that all movies that contain smoking be rated R, something that organizations such as the American Academy of Pediactrics had endorsed.

The new regulations are not enough, according to the AAP, which partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health and 32 state Attorneys General to call for a complete elimination of tobacco smoking in movies accessible to children.
“The Motion Picture Association of America isn’t a surrogate parent, and it shouldn’t try to be”
“A significant body of research indicates that exposure to movie imagery of tobacco smoking by attractive movie stars is among the strongest factors that leads nonsmoking adolescents to try this highly addictive behavior,” the AAP said in a statement.

The AAP has stated that films should automatically receive an R rating if they depict smoking, unless the character smoking is a historical figure who smoked. The group has also asked for an anti-smoking disclaimer to precede all films portraying smoking, and has recommended measures to prevent product placement advertising, such as eliminating brand identification.

Representatives from the American Medical Association were also disappointed with the decision.

“The Motion Picture Association of America’s decision to ‘consider smoking as a factor’ when rating movies does nothing to ensure that children and teens are not exposed to and influenced by on-screen smoking,” said Dr. Cecil B. Wilson of the AMA. “By failing to implement a mandatory R-rating system for smoking in movies, the MPAA has ignored the gravity of the health threat that on-screen smoking poses to children and teens.”

Some critics, on the other hand, argue that smoking is an important cultural aspect of classic films. In fact, cigarettes were often counterparts to such Hollywood icons as Bette Davis, James Dean and Audrey Hepburn.

In an e-mail to the Washington Post, satirist Christopher Buckley sardonically questioned the impact of the new rating system on classic films in which characters smoke. Buckley is the author of “Thank You For Smoking,” a novel about a tobacco lobbyist who advocates smoking in films, that was adapted for the big screen in 2006.

“I can only hope this means that the MPAA will strip such films as ‘Casablanca,’ ‘To Have and Have Not’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ of their G-ratings and re-label them for what they were: insidious works of pro-smoking propaganda that led to millions of uncounted deaths,” Buckley wrote to the Post. “Bravo.”

The new policy will not be retroactive, according to the MPAA.

And others say the new regulations set a dangerous precedent for film standards. Brooke Oberwetter of Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization, blasted the decision, saying it will create a slippery slope of taboo subjects.

“The Motion Picture Association of America isn’t a surrogate parent, and it shouldn’t try to be,” Oberwetter said in a statement. “The only thing this decision will do is make the MPAA’s ratings system—trusted by Americans’ for nearly 40 years—absolutely meaningless. What’s next? A triple-X rating for Fat Albert because it glorifies obesity? An R-rating for Pirates of the Caribbean because Johnny Depp makes imbibing copious amounts of rum look like fun?”

Oberwetter’s statement echoes former MPAA President Jack Valenti’s assertion at a 2004 Senate hearing that rating movies based on smoking would encourage advocacy groups to pressure the organization to regulate other health issues, such as obesity and alcohol, in movies. Valenti, who died in April, created the ratings system in 1968.

The Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild both issued statements of support for the MPAA’s ruling.

In an recent study, MPAA officials determined that 57 percent of the more than 3,000 movies rated during the past four years contained smoking scenes. Of those, about two-thirds were rated R, the study showed.

About The Author

Elizabeth Raftery is senior editor of Blast. Follow her on Twitter.

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