Last updated November 2014
While the effects may be overstated, there is little doubt that portrayal of smoking in movies can be a powerful influence on young people–see Section 5.16 for a review of the evidence.
Studies demonstrating an association between smoking in movies and adolescent smoking typically conclude that more should be done to reduce or eliminate teenage exposure to smoking or tobacco imagery in movies (see e.g. Choi et al 20111). A number of recommended responses to this issue have been offered in the literature, and more recently synthesised in a report by the World Health Organization titled Smoke-free Movies: from Evidence to Action.2 Possible measures for governments included in guidelines for Article 13 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control3 include:
- banning product placement and requiring certification that no payoffs from tobacco companies were accepted
- prohibiting tobacco brand identification or tobacco brand imagery (e.g. billboards) in any movie scene
- requiring strong anti-smoking advertisements or warnings to be displayed at the beginning of any entertainment media depicting tobacco products or smoking
- requiring adult ratings for movies with tobacco imagery.
However there is not universal agreement on the best way of controlling the promotion of smoking in movies or indeed whether it should be controlled at all.4,5, 6 It has been argued that important questions of limiting freedom of speech and censoring artistic expression arise in instances where there is no evidence that smoking imagery has been sponsored by the industry.5, 6 Additionally, portrayals of smoking in movies can vary from overtly glamorous to neutral to remarkably negative; removal of all tobacco imagery could remove an important means by which young people become aware of social, economic and legal issues surrounding the marketing and use of tobacco.7 For example, an Australian study of viewer reactions to the movie, The Insider, a movie containing varied smoking images, found participants held more negative views of the business conduct of the tobacco industry than those who saw an equivalent control film.8
A further option that acknowledges these concerns, and which has been discussed in Australia,9,10 is to simply take tobacco use into account in the rating of movies but without mandatory application of adult ratings.
Educational approaches have also been explored in Australia and elsewhere, both with the industry–raising awareness about the effects of smoking and exploring alternative directorial ideas for denoting mood, class characteristics and the like–and with children, with the development in several states of resources to help children better understand and resist the effects of portrayals of smoking in movies.
A final option that has been canvassed in Australia and the US is restricting taxpayer subsidies to movies that do not portray smoking.
Each of these options is described briefly below.
5.26.1 Bans on portrayal of smoking in movies
While banning smoking portrayals in movies (or at least movies most likely to be seen by children and adolescents) is sometimes advocated and is now supported as an option by the World Health Organization (WHO),2 in practice it has been rarely attempted and the proposition has generated controversy within the tobacco-control field. For instance, Chapman argues that advocacy for the total banning of the depiction of smoking in movies may potentially generate a negative backlash for tobacco-control efforts resulting from what some would see as promotion of censorship that goes too far.6,11
To date, India is the only country to have attempted a wide-scale ban of this nature, but this was not effective and has since been overturned. A total ban on smoking and tobacco product imagery in all Indian films was announced by India's Health Minister in May 2005,12 but the Indian film industry volunteered to control the amount of smoking in Bollywood films instead of accepting an outright ban. Despite these film industry promises to self-regulate tobacco promotion on screen, research conducted by the Burning Brain Society in India found that tobacco brands appeared in more than 40% of Indian films released since 2004.2,13 In January 2009 the Delhi High Court overturned the ban, citing that such a ban restricted the right to freedom of speech and creative expression.12 Thailand has banned smoking scenes on all local television channels since 2000. Any image of an actor smoking or a tobacco product is 'pixilated' or blurred out. No published data are available on the effectiveness of this policy in contributing to discouraging smoking among young people, and it is unclear how such a measure would be regarded in Western countries, including Australia.
5.26.2 Banning product placement, payments from tobacco companies and/or brand-specific imagery
Although brand-specific images of tobacco products in movies are less common now than in past decades (see Section 5.16.2), these can still occur, and there have been calls from the WHO2 and the US Smoke Free Movies group14 for explicitly banning product placement, and requiring certification that no payments of any sort from tobacco companies were accepted by movie companies/producers. The Smoke Free Movies group advocate that producers should post a certificate in the closing credits specifically declaring that nobody on the production received anything of value (cash money, free cigarettes or other gifts, free publicity, interest-free loans or anything else) from anyone in exchange for using or displaying tobacco. Another of the recommendations of the Smoke Free Movies group is that any identification of tobacco brands in movies be banned, including tobacco brand identification or imagery such as billboards that may appear in the background of a movie scene.14
5.26.3 Counter-advertising screened before movies
The WHO has recommended that strong anti-smoking advertisements or warnings be displayed at the beginning of any entertainment media depicting tobacco products or smoking.2,3 This is also advocated by the US Smoke Free Movies group, which recommends that studios and theatres should require a genuinely strong anti-smoking advertisement (not one produced by a tobacco company) to run before any film with any tobacco presence, in any distribution channel, regardless of its Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating.
There is some evidence to suggest that showing an anti-smoking counter-advertisement before films that glamorise smoking negates positive associations. An Australian study with adolescent females showed that viewing a counter-advertisement increased the number of non-smokers who disapproved of the smoking scenes in the movie and increased the number of smokers who believed they would not be smoking within the next year.15 A similarly designed study with American adolescents found that those who viewed the counter-advertising prior to a film showing characters smoking held more negative opinions about the smoking actors.16
A second Australian study with youth cinema patrons found that while placing an anti-smoking advertisement before movies containing smoking scenes can help to 'immunise' non-smokers against the influences of film stars' smoking, caution must be exercised in the type of advertisement screened.17 Some types of advertising were found to actually reinforce smokers' intentions to smoke.
In the US, this is one area in which there has been some attempt by the film industry to be 'responsive' to tobacco-control advocacy. For example in January 2007, the New York-based independent producer and distributor The Weinstein Company announced it would be featuring American Legacy anti-smoking truth spots on all DVDs portraying smoking. The following year Time Warner followed suit and Disney agreed to similarly feature anti-smoking public service announcements in all DVDs depicting smoking.18 Disney further pledged to exclude smoking from Disney labelled films and announced its approval of anti-tobacco spots in cinemas before films featuring smoking. A number of individual directors have also taken a stand against smoking. These include David Frankel (Devil Wears Prada) and Martin Campbell (Casino Royale).
Advertisements played before movies in cinemas tend to promote glamorous products and to have very high production values (computer-generated special effects, international locations, some of the world's most beautiful models, etc.). Experienced Quit campaigners advise9 that the beneficial effect of anti-smoking advertisements before movies would likely depend on the quality, longevity and frequency of turnover of the advertisements used.
5.26.4 Restrictive rating of movies depicting smoking
A growing number of bodies internationally are calling for restrictive ratings of movies with smoking imagery. The WHO report Smoke Free Movies: from Evidence to Action recommends that movies with tobacco imagery should be given an 'adult rating', hence restricting their viewing by minors, and it is similarly supported by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).3 Other peak bodies that have recommended this approach include the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion.19 Restrictive ratings have also been advocated in some of the more recently published studies on the association between smoking depictions in movies and smoking initiation.19-26 Waylen and colleagues for example argue that the dose–response relationship observed in their large-scale study of a cohort of British adolescents supports introduction of an 'adult/18' rating to movies depicting smoking, suggesting that 'films ought to be rated by exposure to smoking in the same way that they are currently rated by level of violence'.20
An automatic R rating of films depicting smoking has been previously recommended by the Smoke Free Movies group based at the University of California, San Francisco, as one of four policy actions to reduce smoking depictions in films.14 Specifically, the recommendation is that:
any film that shows or implies tobacco use should be rated R. The only exceptions should be when the presentation of tobacco clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use or is necessary to represent the smoking of a real historical figure.
Although restricted ratings are now advocated by the WHO,2 there is some contention around this measure even within tobacco control. For example, it has been argued that mandating 'adults-only' rating classifications for movies with smoking imagery may fuel a potentially negative backlash for tobacco control from what some may see as censorship going too far.6,11
Moreover, even an R rating for all movies with smoking content will by no means prevent all young people from viewing such films, given that (US) R-rated movies are still watched by a sizeable proportion of adolescents.27 A US paper published in 2007 reported for example that 84% of young people aged 10–14 years reported watching R-rated films with parental permission.27 Similarly, in a New Zealand study of data collected from Year 10 students between 2002 and 2004, 81.2% of males and 75.6 % of females watched an R-rated film at least once a month.28 Moreover, in the Jackson and colleagues study, adolescents who were more likely to watch R-rated movies (i.e. who had a higher relative exposure to R-rated movies) were more likely to have initiated smoking in the follow-up phase of the study.27
However, others have argued that the primary drive for recommending adult content rating policies for movies with smoking content is not just about restricting young people's viewing of such films. Rather, Millet and colleagues contend that an important aim is to create an economic incentive for film makers and producers to omit smoking from films that they hope to target at the very lucrative youth market.19 Given the far higher return on investment for movie makers for youth versus R-rated movies,19 it is hoped that R-rated restrictions would provide an economic incentive to reduce smoking content.
5.26.5 Inclusion of smoking as a criteria in movie ratings
In the US, there have been some (albeit feeble) attempts at self-regulation by the film industry in response to calls for restricted ratings on films with smoking content, with the MPAA announcing in May 2007 that it would 'consider smoking'–alongside sex, violence and 'adult' language–when it was deciding what rating to assign films. Films that glamorised smoking could receive a higher rating. However, the MPAA ruled out giving all films containing scenes with smoking an R or restricted rating,29 and indicated that it would not be bound to taking any particular action after reviewing films with smoking. Research undertaken by Polansky and colleagues two years later concluded that the MPAA announcement that it would consider smoking in movie ratings had not resulted in any tightening of restrictions for movies with tobacco, and reported that of the 'top ten' box office ranked movies released by MPAA over that two-year period, tobacco was still present in 22% of G/PG-rated films, 64% of PG-13 movies and 80% of R-rated movies.30
It should be noted that film classification in the US is conducted by an industry body whereas the Australian Classification Board and Classification Review Board are government-funded organisations.
5.26.6 Decoding of tobacco promotion and media literacy
Media literacy typically refers to the skills to deconstruct media messages to better understand the persuasive or other techniques that may have been used by the marketers or producers of media material. Media literacy training has been applied to several other issues relevant to adolescence including sexualisation in the media and alcohol and tobacco advertising.31 It has been argued that media literacy training to help adolescents understand the use of smoking images in movies as a tobacco marketing tactic could diminish the influence of such imagery.1
While media literacy has grown in popularity as a tool for health promotion, it is unfortunately often not well evaluated. There are only a handful of published evaluations of media literacy initiative targeting smoking and adolescence, but these do show some promise. Beltramini and Bridge32 for example found that in school, media literacy interventions can help students understand the role of tobacco advertising in encouraging tobacco and marketing strategies employed by tobacco companies.32 Similarly, a more recent program evaluation found that skilling young adolescents for better understanding, discernment and reflective thinking about smoking imagery can improve their ability and motivation to resist smoking related influences.31 This study included a control group, with a greater effect noted in the intervention group among students who had never smoked and those who had experimented. It has been argued that media literacy training may be particularly critical for younger adolescents (e.g. aged 13–15 years), who may be less resistant to the influences of exposure to smoking in movies.1
Schools are an obvious setting for targeting media literacy relating to tobacco, as they provide ready access to young people. Moreover, if media literacy can be embedded into classroom lessons or curriculum, there is the added benefit of potential sustainability.33 As noted by Bier, programs can be strategically designed for easy integration into existing school curriculum, which helps to bring educators on board with program implementation, and contains the costs of program delivery.33 Compared to some of the more 'traditional content' of tobacco education, media literacy initiatives can be framed around the popular media and culture, which enhances the engagement of both students and teachers.33
In Australia, media literacy relating to smoking in movies has been incorporated into youth smoking prevention resources developed in Victoria in the early 1990s and more recently in South Australia and in Western Australia.
In South Australia, 'The Truth is Out There' is a resource for middle school teachers that has been mapped to the South Australian Curriculum Framework, and which includes some lesson ideas relating to smoking in movies and television in its section on 'Why people choose to smoke'. For example, it suggests that students could identify a television program they watch regularly and keep a log of whether smoking occurs (and if so by whom and in what context), and then discuss and analyse this as a class. Other suggested activities include having students discuss qualities of characters who smoke or don't smoke, decode ways smoking is portrayed or discuss the merits of assigning an R rating to movies that contain smoking.
In Western Australia, Keeping Ahead of the Pack is a cross-curriculum resource for lower secondary school students (DVD and activity/lesson ideas) that is linked to the WA Curriculum Framework. For example, one of the lesson activity ideas for English is about reviewing the media and includes information and activity suggestions relating to product placement and smoking on the big screen. Another lesson idea links to the Society and Environment curriculum area and as part of a lesson about creating laws, encourages students to debate the idea of assigning an M or Rated classification to movies depicting smoking. The complete resource can be ordered through Smarter than Smoking, or alternatively the teacher booklet is downloadable from the Smarter than Smoking or OxyGen websites.
Although not focused on smoking in movies per se, The Critics' Choice is an educational competition run in all states and territories each year that helps builds media literacy skills by encouraging students to watch, critique, discuss and vote on 12 anti-smoking television advertisements from all over the world. The West Australian 'Future is in your Hands' initiative also encourages young people to comment on anti-smoking advertising.
In the US, there are also a number of web-based resources and initiatives that seek to educate and stimulate advocacy around smoking in movies, and these can also serve as a media literacy tool for use with young people by teachers or parents/guardians. Scene Smoking and Smoke Free movies are two examples. In Australia, the Oxygen website provides a link from its home page to a tobacco industry exposed section that includes information, tips and movie clips about smoking in movies.
5.26.7 Ending taxpayer subsidy of movies that portray smoking
Stan Glantz, a long-time advocate of smokefree movies, and campaigner Jonathan Polansky have recently called for an end to taxpayer subsidies of movies that depict smoking.34 The state of California provided a total of $374 million in film and television subsidies for the period between mid-2009 and the end of 2011. This included 27 feature films seen widely over 2010 and 2011, which received a total of $128 million. Of these 27 films, 16 films, receiving a total of $75 million, included tobacco imagery. These 16 films grossed $1.1 billion in box office sales. As pointed out by the authors:
'More than two-thirds ($51 million) of California tax credits approved for top-grossing films with tobacco imagery went to PG-13 films. Nearly 80 percent (2 billion/2.5 billion) of in-theater tobacco impressions delivered in the US and Canada by California-subsidized, top-grossing films came from films rated PG-13. (The rest came from R-rated films.)'(p234)
Glantz and Polansky have argued that public monies should be used to advance public goals. They have called on the Government of California to amend the California tax credit program statute, adding the following to the existing list of productions disqualified from eligibility for subsidy:
'... any production that depicts or refers to any tobacco product or non-pharmaceutical nicotine delivery device or its use, associated paraphernalia or related trademarks or promotional material' (p2.34)
Like the Californian Government, the Australian Government seeks to support the local film industry through the provision of concessions for amounts invested in movies made in Australia–for further information on tax offsets for investment in films see http://www.ato.gov.au/content/00288548.htm
In addition to taxpayer subsidies to investors, the Australian Government provides grants for film development to encourage local content, foster talented new film makers, support Indigenous film making and encourage the development of creative material that resonates with Australia. See funding guidelines for bodies such as Screen Australia – http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/funding.
5.26.8 Public support for proposals to address depiction of smoking in movies
Compared to the plethora of studies of public support for other tobacco-control measures (such as smokefree public places), there have been surprisingly few published studies investigating levels of public support for smoking restrictions in movies.
As part of a 2004 New South Wales survey of smoking-related perceptions and practices, 1154 adults participated in a computer-assisted telephone interview about perceptions relating to smoking depictions in movies and television.35 When participants were asked what government measures they would support to limit exposure of smoking depictions in films, 63.1% supported screening anti-smoking ads before movies that had any smoking in them, 50.7% supported regulating the movie industry to limit the portrayal of smoking in movies, and 37.2% supported including smoking in the movie rating system.
In a study with US parents about whether cigarette use should be included as a movie ratings criteria and if movies with tobacco use should be rated R, only 52% of parents believed that cigarettes should be used as movie ratings criteria and only 28.9% supported an R rating for movies that featured smoking.36 The authors commented that 'if parents disagree with an R rating exclusively for smoking, applying R ratings to movies with smoking potentially could lead parents to become more lenient in their restrictions'(p223.36)
There are no reports of studies canvassing public opinion about taxpayer subsidies of movies depicting smoking.
5.26.9 Parental restrictions on exposure
Despite parental ambivalence regarding the addition of cigarette use to rating criteria, parental restrictions on viewing adult-rated movies more generally has been shown to reduce exposure to on-screen smoking and lower the risk of smoking.37,38 These findings have important implications for policy; first, they support the efficacy of reducing exposure to movie smoking as an intervention to reduce young people’s risk of tobacco use. Second, they highlight the importance of addressing the significant exposure of young people to smoking in youth-rated movies. Parental restrictions alone cannot address this issue, therefore policy responses are needed to minimise this remaining exposure.39
5.26.10 Status in Australia of proposals to address depiction of smoking in movies and on the Internet
The Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act 1992 prohibits anyone in Australia from broadcasting in cinemas or on TV any material deemed to be a tobacco advertisement–see Chapter 11, Section 11.3 for further details. As amended by the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Amendment Act 2012 the Act also prohibits Australians from advertising tobacco products on the Internet except where the advertisement provides a direct facility to purchase products.40 However the legislation does not pertain to depictions of smoking that could not be deemed to be an advertisement in the sense that no financial benefit is gained by the transmitting party.
In 2004 in Australia, Cancer Council NSW proposed that counter-advertising be shown before all remaining films that contain pro-smoking imagery.41 Its suggested action points include:
- that all movies are assessed for inappropriate smoking content prior to release
- that once they have been identified, these films be accompanied by strong smoking education advertisements
- that this requirement be written into law at state, territory and national levels.
In the lead up to World No Tobacco Day in the same year, the Australian Democrats referred to this proposal and called on the Federal Government to take action. Health spokesperson Senator Lyn Allison moved a motion that urged the Government to:
(b) ... heed the latest call by the Australian Medical Association and adopt strategies and regulatory measures to counter the influence of smoking in films, including:
(i) a film classification system that provides clear warnings about the extent and nature of smoking in films with films attracting an appropriate descriptor such as 'pervasive smoking' in the same way that descriptors warn of coarse language, sexual references, nudity and violence,
(ii) anti-smoking announcements before films that depict smoking, and
(iii) changes to guidelines to ensure that public funds are not used to support Australian films that glamorise or promote smoking.42
Allison went on to propose the introduction of legislation, the Tobacco Advertising (Film, Internet and Misleading Promotion) Amendment Bill, which was released for public consultation. This bill was never voted on in the Senate. There has been little discussion since this time about whether it is appropriate for film funding agencies to provide grants to films that do not receive financial support from tobacco companies but that nevertheless could be said to glamorise smoking.
In its draft National Preventative Health Strategy10 the Preventative Health Taskforce steered away from any proposals involving automatic restrictive ratings or bans on funding. It recommended rather that the Government encourage the Australian Classification Board to take smoking into account along with all the other factors it considers when rating movies, video games and publications for sale, hire or exhibition in Australia.
The Australian Government's response to the Taskforce43 indicated that it was not going to take immediate action and instead indicated that it would ask the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (established as part of national prevention strategy) to review the evidence for such reforms and to discuss them with other key departments, including the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy; the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts; the Office of Film and Literature Classification; and Screen Australia. In an August 2010 newspaper article, the director of the Australian Classification Board, Donald McDonald, was quoted as stating that the board already considered community standards on harm caused by 'inappropriate' smoking or substance misuse when classifying films.44 No recent data in Australia are available on the prevalence of depictions of smoking in movies popular with Australian teenagers, or on the relative prevalence in movies rated MA as opposed to PG or M.
Make smoking a 'classifiable element' in movies and video games.
Designate tobacco use as a 'classifiable element', to be taken into account by the Classification Board when rating films.
Produce guidance notes to the Board and to television licensees based on the literature on the impact of portrayals of smoking on young people.
und a project to raise awareness among people working in the Australian film, television and entertainment industries of the damaging effects of seductive portrayals of smoking in popular entertainment viewed by children.
Include training to decode depictions of smoking in movies in drug education in schools.
5.26.11 Advocacy against portrayal of smoking in movies
[Content in development]
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