Should movies with smoking be rated R?

This is the second of a two-part series on smoking, media and youth. Part I here.

Still from the movie Rango, after he apparently swallows a cigar and breathes fire.

Still from the movie Rango, after he apparently swallows a cigar and breathes fire.

So, the good news is, teen smoking is down. A government report  in November 2012 found that cigarette smoking among teenagers had declined significantly between 2002 and 2010 in most states, and the other states showed no increase.

But it’s not time to get complacent. According to a recent UCSF study, published by the CDC, smoking portrayals in the movies were up in 2011, after a five-year downward trend, and the surgeon general in a (rather lengthy) report of May 2012 determined that smoking portrayals in the movies have a direct causal effect on youth smoking. That’s a pretty strong statement about the effect of media on real life behavior, and one rarely made by researchers. A meta-analysis of studies found that a huge amount of teen smoking – 44 percent – can be attributed to their exposure to on-screen depictions of smoking.

Some of the biggest films of 2011 with significant smoking were intended for a young audience, such as Rango, and X-Men: First Class.

Meanwhile, even though smoking in the movies was on a downward projection since 2005, according to the surgeon general’s report, the number of episodes in youth-rated movies actually increased by 27 percent during that time because a larger percentage of the movies were youth-rated toward the end of the period due to “ratings creep.” So this has been an ongoing problem over several years.

And movie smoking may be more influential on youth behavior than straightforward marketing, according to the surgeon general, as those portrayals are generally not viewed with the same skepticism as marketing messages, because it’s entertainment, not advertising. And what those movies show is young adults who are cool, rich and good-looking, which youth want to be. And when those young, hip, movie stars are smoking, well it makes for a powerful influence on the kids watching.

So it follows that if smoking in the movies causes kids to start smoking, then reducing their exposure will reduce youth smoking.

As a result of the UCSF study, the CDC has said it will begin monitoring how well movie studios are doing to reduce depictions of smoking in movies geared toward kids.

The interesting point thing here is that tobacco companies don’t appear to be behind this. Tobacco companies that signed on to the Master Settlement Agreement with attorneys general are prohibited from paying for product placement in movies, and there is strong enforcement of that clause. So it’s the movie producers themselves who are to blame.

Three of the largest studios have a policy of reducing depictions of smoking in their productions: Time Warner, Comcast and Disney. The movies from these three companies now average one smoking incident per youth-rated movie (less than R), a decrease of 96 percent since 2005. So good for them.

The other three major corporations that make up the Motion Picture Association of America have  no such policies: Viacom, News Corp. and Sony.  Their movies have an average of 10 smoking incidents per youth-rated movie.  (see surgeon general’s report.)

The attorneys general from 38 states have signed onto a letter asking the other filmmaking companies (those three majors plus CBS and smaller studios) to establish anti-smoking policies for their films – policies that would eliminate smoking in youth rated movies except in cases where they portray an historical figure who smoked, or when they portray the negative effects of tobacco use.

There is also a movement calling for the MPAA to give all movies that depict smoking an R rating. That would significantly reduce the exposure levels of children and young adolescents.

A recent study by the Norris Cotton Cancer Center published in Pediatrics found that rating films with smoking with an R would cut smoking onset by teens.

Another thing to keep an eye on: Music lyrics and music videos. It stands to reason that if movies influence kids, so do music videos. And there’s been an increase there, as well, according to a study conducted by youth themselves:

Berkeley Youth Find Half of Most Popular Songs Mention Smoking or Tobacco Use

Berkeley, California  – Smoking may be making a comeback in youth culture, after decades of being perceived as unhip. In a recent song-lyric and music video analysis, Berkeley youth found that 49.4 percent of their favorite songs contained references to smoking or tobacco use. The sample of 79 of the top-played songs on the four Bay Area radio stations most popular among 12-24 year olds also revealed that 51.3 percent of the music videos from these songs featured smoking imagery.

These were the findings of a City of Berkeley Tobacco Prevention Program project sponsored by the Mixed Messages Remix Campaign. This is an effective and innovative project that empowers high school and college interns to educate younger students by using media literacy and critical thinking strategies to examine the messages they are receiving in popular music and music videos.

What a powerful media literacy project for these students.

While we wait for the movie studios to fix this, it’s a good idea to avoid movies with smoking for your kids. Here are places to find ratings of movies for smoking content:

Hooked by Hollywood

Scene Smoking

Ontario Film Review Board


  1. Smoking shouldn’t be featured in media aimed at kids, however that is not, and can not be seen as an all-encompassing solution to the problem of smoking among youths.

    Kids will continue to see adults smoke in real life, and if the comments in this post ( are anything to go by, a child’s decision to take up the habit can be overwhelmingly laid at the feet of their parents.

    Kids may be subject to an enormous amount of media influence, but when it comes down to it, their parents (and peers come adolescence) continue to have a huge bearing on their life choices.

    Personally, I don’t think movies featuring smoking (at least not prominently) should be rated R. They should at least get a PG-13 rating though and the MPAA could also include smoking in their rating guidelines, which they do not at present.

    • Well that’s true, there are a lot of factors that contribute to youth smoking, including having a parent that smokes. As the surgeon general’s report found, 44 percent is attributable to movies. That’s a lot, in my mind, but still over 50 percent is caused by something else. In fact, the surgeon general’s report on preventing youth smoking is over 1,400 pages long, and I only read chapter 5, on the media’s influence.

      But I think it’s important for parents to have this information about movies, so they can take action to try to limit exposure of their kids, where they have some control over it. I didn’t know about the direct causative effect of movies myself, until I did this research.

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  1. […] This is the first of a two part series on smoking, media and youth. Part II here. […]

  2. […] Erin McNeill discusses the presence of the habit on-screen with animated films coming in for some criticism. […]

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