Rated R For Smoking?

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John Wilkes Studio/Corbis

Cigarettes are finally becoming less common in the movies. But there’s still more big-screen smoke today than there was back in 1998, when tobacco companies were banned from paying for product placement, according to a new report today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That means that public-health officials are still worried about the effect of movies on the health of the nation. Kids and young teens, in particular, do respond to smoking they see in movies, studies suggest. Adolescents who see a lot of on-screen tobacco-use appear more likely to try smoking than adolescents who see very little of it. There’s some concern, then, that increases in media depictions of smoking may lead to health problems decades later.

The new CDC report shows that tobacco in the movies peaked most recently in 2005, after a long (though somewhat erratic increase) since the early 1990s. On-screen smoking has fallen since then.

To produce the report, a California group counted the total number of tobacco-use “incidents” — that is, the number of times tobacco products appeared on-screen — in the top-grossing films of the year, every year from 1991 to 2009. The tabulations show that 2009 was the first year in which more than half of the top-grossing movies — 51% of them — had no depictions of smoking whatsoever. But the study authors worry it still may not be good enough: 39% of movies rated for kids (either G, PG, or PG-13) still contained smoking.

The report authors had some ideas about how to reduce that number, limiting kids’ exposure to depictions of smoking:

[P]olicies could include having a mature content (R) rating for movies with smoking, requiring strong antitobacco ads preceding movies that depict smoking, not allowing tobacco brand displays in movies, and requiring producers of movies depicting tobacco use to certify that no person or company associated with the production received any [financial] consideration for that depiction.

The World Health Organization already says movies should be rated for mature content if they show cigarette smoking. Forcing an R rating on movies would create a powerful incentive, the authors of the new report write, to leave smoking out of movies that are marketed to kids and teens.