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July 10th, 2012:

Should Movies Be Rated ‘R’ … for Smoking?


In a movie, when a character smokes, is that effectively an advertisement for smoking?

Researchers from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth have found a strong relationship between movie smoking exposure in films rated PG-13 and adolescent smoking. The relationship between movie smoking and the habit itself isn’t a new one, but in the past, the precise association has been unclear. Was it the visuals of smoking itself, or the exposure to other adult-oriented content in movies depicting smoking, like sex and violence, which promoted the smoking behavior, or were young people who tend to see movies depicting adult behavior that just happens to include smoking are also more likely to smoke?

In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that exposure to smoking in movies with a PG-13 rating had essentially the same impact on adolescent smoking as exposure to smoking in movies R-rated movies, suggesting, they say, that it is the smoking itself, rather than the other adult content or an attraction to that content, which causes the association.

The solution offered is simple: “an unambiguous R rating for smoking” — not to increase the number of movies rated R, but to decrease the amount of smoking in movies aimed at the teenaged audience. The Motion Picture Association of America already considers smoking a factor in rating a film, and may include it in the explanatory description. For example, 2011’s “Rango

” was rated PG for “rude humor, language, action and smoking.” But smoking alone is not enough to earn a film an R. If it were, these researchers argue, then filmmakers seeking to reach a wider audience would be less likely to include smoking in their movies.

That simple policy change, writes Dr. James Sargent, who led the research, could reduce adolescent smoking by 18 percent — more than the reduction if all parents could suddenly be made “maximally authoritative” in their parenting.

Meanwhile, parents of younger children should not lose sleep over the depiction of smoking in family-friendly movie classics like “101 Dalmations.” Another study, this one from researchers in the Netherlands working with Dr. Sargent (and published in the same issue of the journal Pediatrics), showed that exposure to smoking in a cartoon or family movie did not alter the generally negative impression that children from 8 to 10 years old had of smoking. The researchers aren’t ruling out a cumulative effect, and also noted that the smoking characters in the films they chose weren’t particularly “cool.” (What, that exploding cigar gag in the Tom and Jerry cartoons didn’t make you want to take up the habit?)

Do you hesitate to take a young teenager to a movie with smoking in the description, or worry that your teenager will choose that particular way to emulate the “Rebel Without a Cause?” Would less smoking onscreen — the goal of these researchers — make you happier to send your child off to the movies?