The Motion Picture Association of America this week hinted that onscreen smoking may become a factor in the rating decisions for newly released movies.
This could signal a major shift in an industry in which Hollywood stars have long glamorized cigarettes and cigarette smoking.
The MPAA's ratings, which range from G to NC-17, have long been a source of controversy for movie studios, directors and audiences.
Last year's "This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated" revealed the often obscure methods by which movies are rated.
It has long been public knowledge that major studios work to secure favorable ratings for summer blockbusters so that they reach as large an audience as possible. Box-office sales often follow directly from there.
Public pressure may have something to do with the MPAA's change of direction.
A recent survey funded by the American Medical Association highlighted concerns about the effect of seeing famous actors light up. More than 80 percent of adults "agree that smoking in movies influences teens to smoke," according to the survey, which was conducted over three years by Mississippi State University's Social Science Research Center.
Furthermore, of the more than 6,000 adult survey respondents, 70 percent called for R-ratings in movies that show smoking, unless the film clearly demonstrates the dangers of smoking, or smoking is required for the authentic portrayal of a historical figure.
The MPAA's President Dan Glickman addressed this issue in a speech to industry executives in Las Vegas this past Tuesday. "For some time we have recognized that teen smoking is a major concern for parents," he said, adding, "we want to ensure that our ratings keep these concerns appropriately in mind and are updated as necessary."
Though the MPAA would not say when any concrete change to ratings criteria might take effect, some prominent anti-tobacco campaigners believe that a move to slap a higher rating on movies that contain smoking cannot come too soon.
"The simple act of having an R-rating for smoking in the movies, something that would cost absolutely nothing, would cut the exposure kids get to smoking in half and prevent about 200,000 kids a year from starting to smoke," said Stanton Glantz, who heads the Center for Tobacco Control, Research and Education at the University of California at San Francisco. Glantz recently started the movement "SmokefreeMovies."
According to many health professionals, the cause and effect relationship between the public marketing of cigarettes and their addictive properties is growing increasingly clear.
"If you look at the science, nicotine is a moderately enforcing drug," explains Dr. David Kessler, who was FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997.
"But add to it other stimuli, add to it other cues, add to it other imagery, and what you end up with is a very powerfully addicting substance," said Kessler. "Put it in the movies, put it in the magazines, have it associated with high fashion, and you will see that its addictive properties only increase."
But some groups believe that such a measure, while not creating any First Amendment conflict, would certainly have some effect on artistic freedom.
"This increased number of content categories that the movie industry itself acknowledges may itself be cause for concern," said David Green of the First Amendment Center in Oakland, Calif. "The movie ratings system is voluntary, and this doesn't raise the prospect of government control. It only serves to embolden would-be censors."
Product placement has long been common in Tinseltown, and in the past, cigarettes were no exception. One of the best-known examples was the contract signed by Philip Morris and the producers of "Superman II," starring Christopher Reeve, which repeatedly featured the Marlboro cigarette brand on vans and taxis, while the character Lois Lane was often seen smoking, though her character never smoked in the first "Superman" film nor in any of the comic books.
But in recent years some of Hollywood's biggest players have begun siding with anti-tobacco campaigners.
Late last year, producer Harvey Weinstein decided that educational anti-smoking PSAs would appear before movie titles he released on DVD, including "School for Scoundrels" and "Clerks II."
The PSAs are intended to highlight the dangers of smoking for young people, a move Weinstein said at the time was "the right thing to do."
So while smoking role models remain on celluloid for now, it may be just a matter of time before those with star power start to think twice.