Rated T for Tobacco: The Impact of Tobacco Imagery on Movie Ratings

MPAABy Alex Bullock

Whether you should smoke or not is a personal choice. However, whether smoking is good or bad for your health is not really a matter of opinion (spoiler, it’s bad for you). Smoking is certainly not a habit that we, as a society, want to encourage children to pick up (at least not anymore). Yet, one place that has an impact on children’s perception of smoking is at the movie theater.

On February 25, 2016, citizen Timothy Forsyth filed a class action lawsuit against the Motion Picture Association of America (“MPAA”) and major Hollywood movie studios. The suit essentially seeks to change the way the MPAA rating system works with regard to tobacco imagery. The complaint alleges that movie ratings of “G”, “PG”, and “PG-13” are improper ratings for a movie containing images of tobacco use due to the influential impact the imagery has on children’s likelihood to use harmful tobacco products. The complaint states that “there is a compelling [public interest] in preventing children and adolescents from smoking and becoming addicted to tobacco, suffering from tobacco-induced diseases and premature death.” Thus, the argument goes, it is proper to impose a duty on the MPAA to eliminate youth exposure to smoking by assigning the “R” rating to films depicting smoking so as to reduce the physical harm these films pose to young audiences.

In its defense, the MPAA has filed a motion to strike the suit based on California’s anti-SLAPP statute, claiming the complaint seeks to improperly and illegally change the ratings body’s opinions, which should be afforded First Amendment protection. Not only might a mandatory “R” rating system have an effect on filmmakers’ creative choices (assuming the movie’s rating has an impact on their decision-making—I don’t think the possibility of a “R” rating for depicting tobacco use would have much of an impact on, say, Quentin Tarantino), but, in the view of the MPAA, the plaintiffs are essentially trying to exert some level of control on the opinions held by the rating body. The MPAA states in its filing that “[it] does not apply ratings to ‘prescribe socially appropriate values’ but rather to ‘assign[] the rating [it] believes would best reflect the opinion of most American parents about the suitability of that motion picture for viewing by their children.’” In their view, CARA’s ratings are expressions of opinion protected by the First Amendment.

It is hard to argue with the various studies that have concluded that watching tobacco use in movies increases a child’s likelihood to pick up the habit themselves. In most cases where movies are marketed toward children, tobacco use is likely not such a necessary plot device or element of character development that it cannot be removed from the movie without negatively impacting the story being told.  For what it’s worth, the MPAA already notes in the “rating descriptor” the presence of tobacco imagery in movies when it affects the movie’s rating, and the major movie companies that belong to MPAA have policies addressing the depiction of tobacco use in their movies (here is the policy for the Walt Disney Company, for example).

A simple solution may be for the MPAA to always include a straightforward disclaimer and description of imagery depicting tobacco use in a movie, no matter the impact on the actual rating of the movie, allowing parents to make an informed decision on whether the movie is suitable for their children on their own terms. Or maybe the commercial benefits of avoiding the mandatory “R” rating that would accompany tobacco use in movies is the level of incentive necessary to make studios commit to more closely monitoring the images of tobacco use in movies marketed to children. Either way, decision makers in these situations should be aware of the potential impact of their use of tobacco imagery and should be able to provide adequate justification for its inclusion in their movies.

Further, if the mandatory “R” rating for tobacco imagery is adopted, doesn’t it follow that there should be a mandatory “R” rating for depictions of underage drinking, or of overeating, or anything else that may cause physical harm to children? Now, not every children’s movie should be free to glamorize adult vices, but a more sensible and simple solution is to allow the ratings body to form its own opinion, with the caveat that they provide sufficient information about the movie’s content so that parents may form their own fully informed opinions as well.

Image Source: MPAA

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