Among the greatest unsung public health advances of recent times is progress made against the global cigarette industry.
In the United States, cigarette smoking is finally on the decline. The courts have ruled the tobacco industry to be “racketeers.” Smokefree spaces, including not just workplaces but restaurants and bars, are proliferating, reducing the harms of second-hand smoke and encouraging millions to quit. States are raising cigarette taxes, reducing smoking and raising funds for important public health programs.
Internationally, progress is speeding even faster. A global treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is encouraging countries to adopt far-reaching anti-smoking measures, including bans on all cigarette advertisements. Countries are emulating and surpassing the smokefree initiatives in the United States — even Irish pubs are now smokefree!
But despite all the public health gains, Big Tobacco is still on the move, addicting millions more smokers. And the industry has some unfortunate allies.
One important cultural ally of Big Tobacco is Hollywood. Smoking in youth-rated movies in on the rise, and it has demonstrable effects on smoking rates.
According to researchers at the University of California San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, smoking appears even more in Hollywood movies released with G/PG/PG-13 than in R-rated films. Altogether, 75 percent of all U.S. releases have smoking scenes. One cartoon film now on DVD, The Ant Bully, includes 41 tobacco scenes.
Researchers have found that viewing smoking in movies makes it far more likely that children will take up the habit — controlling for all other relevant factors (such as whether parents and peers smoke).
Think about it–the movies are glamorous, and they portray smoking as glamorous, whether or not it is a good guy or bad guy lighting a cigarette.
The public health advances against Big Tobacco are due in significant part to effective efforts to vilify the industry. When children especially appreciate how the companies are manipulating them, they resist. Hollywood’s glorification of smoking works directly against this.
U.S. films bring in 30 percent of movie box office sales globally, and Hollywood’s contribution to smoking is significant overseas, where the tobacco epidemic is worst. Ten million people are expected to die every year from smoking-related disease by 2025, 70 percent of them in developing countries. Hollywood movies have gigantic appeal overseas, often with even greater cultural influence than in the United States. They appeal exactly to the demographic most likely to take up smoking – urbanized, middle-class youth who aspire to Western lifestyles.
This is an easy problem to cure. Leading U.S. health groups and the United Nation’s World Health Organization have urged Hollywood to adopt R-ratings for movies with tobacco scenes (with exceptions where 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), to air anti-tobacco spots before films with tobacco imagery, to certify that movies with tobacco received no tobacco industry pay-offs, and to stop identifying tobacco brands in movies. None of these measures involves any “censorship.”
The industry has resisted.
This week, leading up to the 79th Annual Academy Awards, public health groups and agencies from New York and Los Angeles, from Liverpool and Sydney have mobilized to demand that Hollywood end its complicity with Big Tobacco.
In Washington, DC, representatives of the Smokefree Movies Action Network, dressed in biohazard suits, called on the Motion Picture Association of America to remove “toxic” tobacco content from youth rated films. They presented the MPAA with a “golden coffin.”
The trade association’s representatives declined to accept the award.
The celebration of film at the Oscars reminds us of Hollywood’s reach. That’s exactly why it is so important to get smoking out of kid-rated films.
For more information about tobacco in Hollywood, the evidence of harm, and the widely endorsed policy solutions, visit www.smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu.