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Tobacco scenes on screen should carry R-rating, say researchers

There’s something about Audrey Hepburn’s impossibly long cigarette holder that oozes elegance and class.

The use of tobacco on-screen has long been a device used to help craft characters, from the effortlessly cool Danny Zuko in Grease to the womanising executive Don Draper in Mad Men.

But New Zealand researchers are calling for an R rating for TV shows and films containing tobacco imagery, after a study that shows there has been little change in on-screen smoking in the past 10 years.

“While tobacco imagery cannot be banned in any meaningful way, legislation could be introduced requiring programming with tobacco imagery to be R-rated,” the authors concluded.

The research, led by Louise Marsh of the University of Otago, examined tobacco imagery on New Zealand television over a week-long period in October 2014 – 10 years after a similar study in 2004.

There was “virtually no change” in the number of programmes with tobacco imagery, but there was a small reduction in the number of scenes with imagery, said Marsh, who works in the university’s department of preventive and social medicine.

Marsh argued the lack of change did not reflect the decline in smoking in New Zealand, and might encourage normalisation of smoking.

But longstanding film reviewer Graeme Tuckett said an R-rating would achieve nothing. “The whole idea of ratings has almost become redundant, because so many people watch things online.”

Films had typically reflected reality, and smoking was rarely portrayed as “cool” any more, he said.

“In the 30s, 40s and 50s, cigarette companies definitely paid for extensive product placement in film and TV to make smoking look really cool.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a modern-day heroic character smoking.

“[Smoking] is one of those things that’s naturally on its way out, and trying to legislate it could be counter-productive.”

While the overall depiction has remained steady, the number of scenes featuring tobacco and under-18s had tripled, Marsh said.

One positive she could see was that the level of anti-smoking advertisements, such as those for Quitline, had almost tripled.

An Otago University professor supported the proposed R-rating, arguing that TV remained a powerful influence for normalisation.

“Having tobacco and smoking images on [TV] increases the risk that smoking will remain a ‘normal’ activity,” associate professor of public health George Thompson said.

“The removal or countering of smoking and tobacco images in the media is a major neglected area for tobacco control, and a tobacco and smoking R rating appears to be a practical and effective way of intervening for health.”

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