Senate Democrats aim to eliminate tobacco imagery in movies

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Some Democratic senators are encouraging the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America to ensure “responsible” practices when it comes to displaying use of tobacco in films – a plea they believe will stop young people from taking up smoking.

In a letter sent to MPPA CEO Charles Rivkin, the senators detail what they say is the strong correlation between on-screen smoking in films and youth smoking rates. A 2012 study by the U.S. Surgeon General cited in the letter finds “a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and initiation among young people.”

The MPAA is responsible for assigning ratings to films and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the association provides a “smoking label” for some films that portray smoking – but fails to label 89 percent of movies that do.

“Although evidence connecting smoking imagery to youth smoking initiation is strong, MPAA has yet to take meaningful action to discourage tobacco imagery in films or effectively warn viewers and parents of tobacco’s presence in a movie,” the letter states.

The senators mention the significant decline in youth smoking rates from 18.2 billion in 2002 to 2.9 billion in 2015. However, red flags were raised when the numbers increased to 4.6 billion tobacco users as of 2017.

“Our nation’s dramatic decline in youth tobacco use is a tremendous achievement, but on-screen depictions remains a threat to this progress and threaten to re-normalize tobacco use in our society,” the letter states. “We cannot afford to lose any ground in this area.”

In 2007, the Harvard School of Public Health recommended the MPAA follow new steps to prevent youth smoking numbers from increasing. As a result, the MPAA established a movie rating policy meant to discourage filmmakers from shooting scenes that involved tobacco use. However, the senators argue that the MPAA “merely added small-print ‘smoking’ labels to 11 percent” of top-grossing films.

PHOTO: A man smokes an electronic cigarette in this undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
A man smokes an electronic cigarette in this undated stock photo.

In 2006 and 2007, tobacco producer Altria distributed two print advertisements in entertainment industry trade publications against the display of tobacco in films.

“Throughout 2007, we talked with major motion picture studios, two minor motion picture studios as well as several key film festivals and trade associations to continue the discussion on eliminating smoking and tobacco use in movies directed at youth,” Altria said on their website.

“For years, public health experts, state Attorneys General, federal government agencies, and Congress have raised concerns about the connection between smoking imagery in movies and youth smoking initiation, and have recommended that the film industry adopt responsible practices to limit youth exposure to smoking imagery in movies,” the letter states.

The letter asks what steps the MPAA will take to ensure young people do not view depictions of smoking in films, including whether the MPAA will assign an “R” rating to movies that depict smoking.

The letter was signed by Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

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