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As You Sow Planting Seeds For Social Change

Smoke-Free Movies

Hollywood is a powerful channel for promoting tobacco addiction to adolescents. Public health researchers from Dartmouth estimate that 44% of all new young smokers are recruited by smoking in films. Ultimately, 100,000 of each year's recruits will die from tobacco-related disease. This toll from kids' exposure to smoking on screen will exceed all current annual U.S. deaths from murder, suicide, illegal drug use, drunk driving, and HIV/AIDS combined.

Surgeon General 50th Anniversary Smoking Report Links Hollywood to Youth Deaths

Read our press release on the Surgeon General's 50th Anniversary Smoking Report linking Hollywood to youth deaths

Because tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death, a wide range of national groups, including the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and the national PTA are urging an R rating for movies with tobacco imagery.

As You Sow is taking action to cut adolescent smoking by pushing film companies to reduce smoking in youth films. Together with leaders from the Tobacco Program of the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility, we are leading shareholders in asking senior management at Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom (Paramount), News Corp (20th Century Fox), Comcast (Universal), and CBS Films to address this issue.

Our shareholder dialogues prompted many of the largest studios to enact internal policies and strict procedures to reduce and eliminate smoking in youth-rated films. These dialogues and mounting pressure on the film industry helped cut the number of tobacco incidents per youth-rated film by about half since 2005. Comcast (Universal), Disney, and Time Warner brought tobacco incidents in youth movies close to zero in 2010.

Despite these declining trends and strong signals from the highest health and legal authorities in the country, smoking depictions in youth-friendly films began to increase in 2011. From 2010 to 2011, tobacco incidents per youth-rated film jumped 34%, according to a journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco impressions delivered to U.S. audiences by youth-rated films rose to 10.7 billion, nearly double the level of the previous year.

In 2012, the United States Surgeon General released a landmark study that concludes that on-screen tobacco portrayals in youth-friendly movies directly causes kids to start smoking. It also endorsed recommendations by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other authorities to give films with smoking an R rating.

This prompted 38 state attorney generals and district attorneys to write a letter to media company CEOs calling for an R rating for films with smoking. It noted that "each time the industry releases another movie that depicts smoking, it does so with the full knowledge of the harm it will bring children who watch it."

In response, our shareholder group initiated an industry-wide push to protect vulnerable youth by filing a wave of shareholder resolutions for the 2013 proxy seasonwith all major publicly-traded studios calling on corporate boards to “take the steps necessary to implement the Surgeon General’s recommendations by voluntarily rating R” all movies with smoking. The requested action would have just two exceptions:

  1. Films that portray actual historical figures who used tobacco
  2. Films that depict the negative effects of tobacco use

Our campaign has endorsed four actions proposed by the nation's leading medical organizations to help to resolve this problem.

1. Give All Films with Smoking Incidents an R Rating

Short of ending smoking and tobacco depictions in movies, the most effective and most sustainable way to reduce youth exposure to on-screen smoking is to give movies that depict smoking an R rating. Our recommendation is for movie studios to utilize the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system to allow parents to exercise control over their children's exposure to on-screen smoking.

James D. Sargent, MD, co-author of the Pediatrics study cited below, has concluded, "[i]f you combined parental R-rated movie restriction with an R rating for smoking you could have a particularly powerful means of preventing teens from trying smoking."

The MPAA administers this voluntary system on behalf of the studios and companies that own them; the government is not involved.

Major health organizations have urged the MPAA to give an R rating to films that feature on-screen smoking, just as it would for offensive language, excessive violence, or explicit sexual content.

The tobacco industry tells us smoking should be an adult choice. This option allows parents to decide how much to expose children to on-screen smoking until they reach 17 years of age.

2. Play Anti-Smoking Ads

Playing anti-smoking trailers before those films that depict smoking has a demonstrated deterrent effect. These should be spots developed by anti-smoking groups or states, not tobacco companies.

3. Certify the Production Received No Tobacco Payoffs

For many years, paid tobacco placement in films were routine. But the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and the government bars tobacco firms from paid brand product placement.

Unbranded smoking, though, which makes up the bulk of on-screen smoking, is a gray area. In-kind arrangements are as hard to prove as to disprove. It is unclear that any government agency is taking steps to clearly enforce this ban.

Going on record in a movie's credits to state that no trades or payoffs of any kind were received from tobacco companies or their representatives would make movie producers accountable for any continuing collusion within their production companies.

4. Stop Identifying Tobacco Brands On Screen

Tobacco brands on screen convey nothing except a star endorsement. Signage and other brand collateral were significant parts of explicit brand placement in the 1970s and 1980s.

At the urging of state attorneys general, some tobacco firms have publicly stated that they do not condone use of their trademarks in movies. But they have also signaled studios that they will take no legal action.

From magazine ads, to transit posters, to stockcars, all U.S. media are now largely free of tobacco branding where young people would encounter it. Youth oriented movies are a glaring exception.

If movie producers are not being compensated to display specific brands, there is reason to display a specific brand.


Several recent studies have provided the impetus for shareholders to act.

  • The 2012 Surgeon General report, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults, has found that “the evidence is sufficient to conclude that there is a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking among young people.” The report also recommends “an MPAA policy to give films with smoking an adult ‘R’ rating.”

  • Thirty-eight state and regional Attorneys General wrote the CEOs of media companies that have no published policy on movie smoking, including News Corp. (Fox), Sony, and Viacom (Paramount). Their letter requested that companies take steps to:
    • Eliminate smoking from future youth-rated movies
    • Add "effective" anti-tobacco spots to movies with smoking, regardless of rating
    • Certify no payoffs for tobacco depictions
    • End tobacco brand display on screen

  • A Dartmouth Medical School study (2012) found that youths were exposed to three times more on-screen smoking in PG-13 films than R-rated ones. It also showed that removing smoking from those films would cut smoking initiation by 18%.

  • A Dartmouth Medical School study (2004) found that teens who viewed movies with smoking are three times more likely to start smoking. Controlling for all other factors, the study found that teens who saw the most smoking in movies over that period were three times more likely to start smoking than those who saw the least.

  • A University of California, San Francisco study (2004) demonstrated that girls whose favorite stars smoke are more likely to begin smoking. It also documented an 80% increase in the share of estimated tobacco impressions delivered to theater audiences by youth-rated as opposed to R-rated movies between 1999 and 2003.

  • A Harvard School of Public Health report (registration required) found evidence of “ratings creep” over the last decade. Content once concentrated in R-rated films, including smoking, is increasingly found in films rated PG and PG-13.



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