Movies With Smoking Should Be Rated-R, Says World Health Organization

By May Wilkerson 02/02/16

Onscreen smoking is on the rise again as Big Tobacco turns to the movie industry to push its deadly product.

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Smoking in Movies
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Movies that depict characters smoking should get an R-rating, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said. The report, Smoke-Free Movies, was published today in the lead-up to the Oscars, to highlight how tobacco companies target young people using product placement in movies. In the report, WHO claims that 44% of all Hollywood films, and 36% of films rated for young people in 2014, contained characters smoking or references to smoking.

The report used as an example the film Transformers: Age of Extinction, which features a cigar-smoking robot. In 2014, the box office hit, which is rated PG-13 in the US, delivered a total of 2.6 billion “impressions” of tobacco use in China alone, the report estimated.

WHO said that as countries across the globe tighten restrictions on tobacco advertising, tobacco companies are increasingly turning to the film industry to push their products to young people.

According to Dr. Armando Peruga, program manager of WHO’s tobacco-free initiative, the amount of onscreen smoking in movies had declined in the last decade, but had increased again in 2013-14. “The tobacco industry has been looking at alternatives to promote their products and films is the last frontier for tobacco companies,” he said.

Back in 2009, WHO made their first plea for movies featuring smoking to be restricted to adult audiences—usually meaning people aged 18 or above, though it depends on the country. But no government has implemented the ban.

Now, the organization is asking again, arguing that TV and movies have become crucial territory for tobacco advertisers. According to a US study, onscreen smoking accounts for 37% of all teens who pick up the habit. And in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that exposure to smoking on TV and in films would lead more than six million young people to take up smoking, of which an estimated two million would eventually die from tobacco-related causes.

In the UK, a study of the 15 most commercially successful films in the UK between 1989 and 2008 found that 70% of all the films contained smoking, add 92% of the films were rated for children aged younger than 18. “In some films the percentage of tobacco scenes are far greater than you would see in the society in which the film is set,” said Peruga.

But pro-smoking lobbyists have unsurprisingly, pushed back against proposed regulations. “Disney has a no-smoking policy for its PG 13-rated films, and that’s fine, but films aimed at older audiences must be allowed to reflect real life, not some sanitized smoke-free world,” argued Simon Clark, the director of the smokers’ group Forest. “Penalizing films that portray smoking by giving them a rating equivalent to an 18 certificate is a clumsy and unnecessary attempt at censorship.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.