Smokefree Movies for Kids

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As many of you may know, the famous tobacco control scientist and advocate, Professor Stan Glantz, has over the past few years been focusing on the issue of depictions of smoking in movies. Part of the concern stems from good evidence that young people are highly influenced by movies due to their cultural value and glamorous nature. The other part stems from a history of use of “product placement” in movies. This refers to the movie producers agreeing to include a specific product in their movie in return for some incentive (typically money). A famous example of this is a letter from Sylvester Stallone agreeing to smoke particular brands of cigarettes in his movies for $500,000. So when one combines the financial power of the tobacco industry with product placement we end up with a hell of a lot more gratuitous smoking in movies than is necessary.

Of course the movie companies and many movie enthusiasts argue about the need for art to imitate life etc etc. However numerous examples demonstrate that to be a lot of nonsense. Professor Glantz points to depictions of Marlboro cigarettes being dragged around or used by aliens in movies like Men In Black. Is it really true that those aliens prefer Marlboros and so showing the brand was necessary for the movie to be accurate? Mmm….I doubt it.

My favorite example comes from the film “A Beautiful Mind”. The movie stars Russell Crowe in the lead role portraying the (still living and working) Princeton University professor, John Nash. In real life, John Nash suffered from schizophrenia but did not smoke. In the movie he suffered from schizophrenia, but smoked. I’m not sure why the producers changed this aspect of reality or what it added to the movie.

But these are details. Professor Glantz’ main point is that movies made to be viewed by kids do not need to include smoking, and therefore should be given an R rating if they do, just as they are if they depict illicit drug use. Note that an R doesn’t stop people under 17 from seeing the movie in a movie theater. It just means they need to be accompanied by an adult. It also doesn’t ban smoking from movies, it just means that movies with smoking in them will receive an R rating, just as sex, drugs, cursing and certain types of violence will get a movie an R rating. Of course the movie industry is very clear that a large part of its audience is kids and particularly teens. The net effect of the rating changes professor Glantz is recommending would be that gratuitous smoking will be taken out of many movies and particularly those aimed at kids.

I must admit that I didn’t initially pay much attention to this proposal, and my natural inclination was to doubt whether it really was worth the effort. But while I was at the UK National Smoking Cessation Conference in London last week I heard Professor Glanz talk about this idea and I came around to thinking its maybe not as extreme as I first thought. In fact he convinced me that it’s a reasonably sensible idea that would likely result in thousands fewer teens taking up smoking. Sometime soon the full audio recording of Professor Glantz’ presentation will be posted on the conference website along with his slides. I’ll post the link when its available, but for now those interested in this subject may want to check out the following website:
http://smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu/
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About the Author


MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.

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