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August 18th, 2009:

City council considers adults only certificate for films featuring smoking

Mark Pownall

1 London

Liverpool City Council is considering giving films that have characters who smoke an “18+” certificate.

In some parts of the city between 40% and 50% of adults smoke, twice the national prevalence in England of 22%. Local health officials say that the proposal is part of a series of public health measures that the city has championed for its smoke-free Liverpool strategy. In 2004 the city voted for a ban on smoking in public, but this was overtaken by national legislation in July 2007.

The national British Board of Film Classification awards films an 18 rating “where material appears to risk harm to individuals,” and the local primary care trust is hoping that Liverpool’s move will put the board under pressure to apply such a rating nationally to films featuring smokers.

The proposal takes advantage of the right of local authorities’ licensing committees to overrule the board’s decisions and make their own judgments on films where they have good local reasons for doing so.

In the past councils have used the power to stop controversial films being shown in cinemas, including Monty Python’s Life of Brian, banned by several councils.

Paula Grey, director of public health at the city council and at Liverpool Primary Care Trust in a joint appointment, said that the powerful influence of films was brought to the trust’s attention by young people themselves during youth advocacy work on smoking.

“In Liverpool we have a big problem of young people starting to smoke, and young people identified movies as probably the biggest single influence,” she explained. She added that celebrity actors are powerful role models for young people.

“As a society we have got rid of tobacco advertising, yet we have Hollywood movies promoting smoking as a cool and sexy thing to do. It’s completely inconsistent,” she said.

“We have been trying to get the [British Board of Film Classification] to implement its own guidelines and recognise that smoking is a dangerous activity, but their current strategy is to refuse to accept that smoking is an activity with a risk of harm.”

Rob Barnett, a Liverpool GP and secretary of the BMA local medical committee, said that it was difficult to get the under 16s to stop smoking once they had started.

“Many films targeted at young people have scenes of smoking in them. If smoking is in your face in films, that just adds to peer pressure to smoke and can tip youngsters over the edge into deciding to start smoking,” he said.

Amanda Sandford, research manager for the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health, said: “The [classification board] should take a stronger line and tighten up its guidelines. If films portray smoking, cinemas should be required to run advertising on the dangers of smoking.”