August 26, 2011

Assigning Adult Ratings to Movies that Include Cigarette Smokers Is Bad Policy

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Matthew Farrelly
Matthew Farrelly

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — In an essay published this month in the Public Library of Science journal Medicine, two prominent tobacco researchers argue against adopting adult movie ratings in the United States for films that include on-screen cigarette smoking.

The essay, by researchers at the University of Sydney and RTI International, objects to a well-meaning policy being proposed by more than 20 public health agencies and the World Health Organization.

The policy, if adopted, would allow leading movie characters to accurately portray people who smoke cigarettes, but would assign adult ratings to movies in which nameless, faceless background characters smoke, unless they are scripted to speak against smoking.

The authors say the existing evidence fails to account for other adult content in movies with smoking, casting doubt on the evidence of a dose-response relationship between the presence of smoking in movie scenes and an increase in youth smoking.

"We have reason to question that movie smoking would influence an increase in youth smoking," said Matthew Farrelly, Ph.D., chief scientist and senior director of RTI's Public Health Policy Research Program. "Smokers in movies never just smoke cigarettes. They also often use profanity, demonstrate rebellious behavior, or use dark humor. Basically, movies showing smoking have a lot more in them that might appeal to youth at risk of smoking than just smoking."

The draft policy attributes on-screen smoking with recruiting 390,000 youths each year in the United States, and claims the new policy would prevent 200,000 a year from starting to smoke. It also states that the policy would save 120,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone. However, the essay authors said the scientific evidence is not sufficient to support those claims.

The authors further suggest that even if there were a causal relationship between on-screen cigarette smoking and increased youth smoking, the new policy would be unlikely to have a measureable effect on youth smoking outcomes.

"Most fundamentally, it is bad policy to regulate creative or cultural products like movies, books, art and theater," said Simon Chapman, professor and director of research of the University of Sydney School of Public Health. "The role of film in open societies involves far more than being simply a means to mass communicate healthy role models. Many movies depict social problems and people behaving badly, and smoking in movies mirrors the prevalence of smoking in populations."

"No one would consider me a fan of the tobacco industry, but even I think the proposal circulating among public health officials to rate movies based on the presence of background cigarette smokers would likely do nothing to reduce youth smoking," Farrelly said.