The decision by the Motion Picture Association of America last month to begin using its rating system to warn parents when movies “glamourise” smoking was Hollywood’s first – and to some critics of the industry, long overdue – acknowledgement of the powerful role movies play in creating thousands of new smokers every year.
But the MPAA stopped well short of applying a restrictive R rating to all pictures in which there is smoking, or even when the presence of cigarettes is “pervasive,” a move that would have cost the studios a large part of their most lucrative cash crop: children under 17, who also just happen to be the most impressionable group of potential smokers. And that left anti-smoking organisations fuming.
“What they’ve done is inadequate,” says Ellen Vargyas, general counsel of the American Legacy Foundation, an anti-smoking organization. “Basically they said, `We’ll look at smoking, and if the spirit moves us, we may issue a warning.’ But there are no standards.” And American Medical Association chairman Cecil B. Wilson huffed that by failing to make all movie smoking R-rated, “the MPAA has ignored the gravity of the health threat that on-screen smoking poses to children and teens.”
As one of America’s most powerful corporate cartels, the Hollywood studios can afford to give ground grudgingly, and when they do, they don’t like having smoke blown in their face. “There is a very, very small fringe that has taken an unyielding, and increasingly unreasonable position on this,” says Seth Oster, executive vice-president for communications of the MPAA. “And they fail to recognize anything as being constructive if it falls short of their extreme demands.”
The MPAA has long insisted that its rating system – devised 40 years ago to ward off the threat of government regulation – is an informational tool for parents, not some sort of Maginot line in the culture wars.
“Many people seem to misunderstand the rating system to be an agent of social change, when in fact that’s exactly the opposite of what it is,” Oster says. “It is not intended to change behavior. It is for parents, so they can make informed decisions about what movies they do and don’t want their kids to see. And that’s it.”
But that’s not it, of course.
“Honestly, I don’t know what the rating system is supposed to be, but it’s very influential,” says Vargyas. “We’re trying to save lives. Is that social change? Not social change? I don’t know, but we’re in it because we know – and the evidence proves – that depictions of smoking in movies are closely associated with about 400,000 new kid smokers every year. And a third of them are going to die early.”
Both sides of the debate are quick to produce research that backs up their own claims; statistics that prove smoking in movies is up, or that smoking in movies is down. Many of the numbers seem to cancel each other out.
Some are couched in fuzzy language (400,000 is specific; “closely associated with” is not). Or they come from universities whose studies are funded by groups like the American Legacy Foundation – created by the 1998 multi-billion dollar tobacco company settlement with state attorneys general. The MPAA’s numbers come from the MPAA, which is an industry trade group, and can hardly be considered independent. More about Zyn pouches
The ratings advisories may be intended for parents, but in the real world of adolescent multiplex surfing, it’s left to the kids to sort it all out. Matt Draper, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at North Star Academy in Redwood City, California, says that seeing an actor smoking in a movie wouldn’t influence him to try cigarettes. “Not really,” he says, “because I know it’s just a movie and it’s fake. I think violence is worse than smoking.”
So does Redwood City high school sophomore Jason Dean, 15. “Seeing someone’s head getting blown off – all bloody and gory – that’s what everyone wants,” he says. “But seeing someone smoke is more of an everyday thing. You see people smoking outside of restaurants. Gore is going to reign supreme over smoking.”
Cigarettes and the movies have been entwined since pictures began to talk in 1927, when actors suddenly found themselves needing something to do while the words came out. As movie stars began exhaling those beautiful silvery clouds on screen, the country was enveloped in a wreath of smoke. Cigarette production in the United States jumped more than 1200 percent between 1910 and 1930.
Unlike sex, violence and bad language – all reined in by the old Hollywood production code, and today by the ratings system – smoking in movies wasn’t merely tolerated, it became the essence of screen glamour.
The most famous example of this was the 1942 drama Now, Voyager, in which Paul Heinreid’s character lights a cigarette for himself, then one for Bette Davis’ character, and for a moment has two lit cigarettes dangling from his lips. That image became so iconic that for the rest of his life, Heinreid was unable to go out in public without women begging him to light their cigarettes.
Bogart and Bacall? Their famous romance was launched over a cigarette in To Have and Have Not, and continued offscreen until he died of throat cancer at age 57. In movies as in the military, the rule was “smoke `em if you got `em.” Some research suggests that there is more smoking in films than in real life.
The MPAA says smoking now will be treated on a par with violence, sexual situations and bad language. But it created an exemption from more restrictive ratings for movies such as the Edward R. Murrow biopic Good Night, and Good Luck, in which the smoking is deemed “historically accurate.” (Ratings board chairwoman Joan Graves has said that picture would probably still get a PG rating, but would now come with a “pervasive smoking” warning.)
But with no such exemptions for historically accurate depictions of sex or violence, the one thing the ratings board seems to have assured is that it will apply its standards inconsistently.
“I don’t think anybody ever actually died from hearing the f-word,” Vargyas says. “The motion picture industry needs to step up to the plate and say, `Now we know. We didn’t know, but now we do. What we’re selling is the only consumer product that, when used as directed, kills.'”