WASHINGTON, July 21 (UPI) -- A Hollywood icon has fetched some bad press lately -- tobacco.
The substance garners more screen time in youth-rated films than R-rated movies, concludes a new national study.
"There's nothing else, no other single thing, that can be done to reduce youth smoking in the United States and the world than getting smoking out of movies," said Stan Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California and founder of Smoke Free Movies.
The study, "Trends in Top Box Office Tobacco Use: 1996-2004," was led by James Sargent of Dartmouth Medical School and supported by the National Cancer Institute and American Legacy Foundation. It analyzed the Top 100 box-office hits for each year from 1996-2004 and found that 56 percent of smoking occurrences are portrayed in youth-rated films, with 75 percent of youth-rated and 90 percent of R-rated movies depicting tobacco.
"Movie smoking is a little bit like lead poisoning," said Sargent -- it's something that an industry places in the environment of children that harms them. The American Legacy Foundation states that tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
A 2005 report on a previous study by Sargent found that 38 percent of youth smoking can be traced back to tobacco imagery in films and that children with the highest exposure to cigarette use in movies are more than three times as likely to begin smoking than those with the least exposure.
Glantz said that prohibiting smoking imagery in movies rated PG-13 and under, except when it would lead to historical inaccuracy or when negative health effects are clearly shown, could easily be accomplished and would eliminate an estimated 120,000 tobacco-related deaths each year.
Smoke Free Movies advocates four policy goals to this end that have been endorsed by the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association, the American Legacy Foundation and the American Medical Association, among others. These recommendations include assigning an R rating for all future films containing smoking, prohibiting tobacco brand identification in films, airing anti-smoking ads before any movies containing tobacco imagery, and certifying in closing credits that no one working on film production was compensated for product placement.
"Sadly, many producers excuse themselves from their role in youth smoking citing artistic necessity and ignoring the health threats their films pose to the millions of America's children," said Stephen Havas, vice president of science, quality and public health for the American Medical Association.
Between one-third and one-half of all youth who try a cigarette will go on to become daily smokers, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that of all these, eventually one in three will die of a tobacco-related disease.
Some see the anti-tobacco effort in movies as a form of censorship, arguing that viewers should be able to choose for themselves what they want to see in films.
"The important principle is that filmmakers should have creative rights to depict human behaviors because that's what movies are about," said Gayle Osterberg, spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, "and that is one of our great freedoms in this country, that freedom of speech and expression."
Osterberg agreed that smoking is a major health threat but noted that the MPAA has always urged parents to be informed about film content when allowing their children to see a movie. While the MPAA Web site provides links to other sites focusing on movie ratings, tobacco imagery is not a specific consideration when assigning an age-appropriate category for films.
Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, said that this is not censorship because eliminating tobacco imagery in films would save lives. "These depictions actually kill people," she said.
The Major Settlement Agreement of 1998, a legally binding agreement negotiated between the four largest U.S. tobacco companies and 46 U.S. states, restricted advertising and marketing of tobacco products and required billions of dollars in payments to the states and anti-tobacco campaigns. Paying for product placement and authorizing the use of brand names is prohibited under this settlement, but producers can still choose to include tobacco imagery in their films.
The study report noted that tobacco brands appeared in 11 percent of the 100 top-grossing movies in 2004, down from 22 percent in 2000.
"We don't want our brands or brand imagery depicted in movies or television shows, and that has been our policy for nearly 15 years," said Jennifer Golisch, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris USA. "Although we don't engage in product placement, that doesn't mean that our brands are never shown. Some directors choose to depict our brands in their work without our permission."
Mark Smith, a spokesman for RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, also emphasized that his business does not encourage product placement. "When you do see our products in films, it happened without our consent," he said.
Philip Morris USA and RJ Reynolds both are involved in youth smoking prevention efforts, including national advertising campaigns, youth development organizations and communications for parents on how to help prevent their children from smoking.
By restricting the use of tobacco in films, Smoke Free America hopes to also change tobacco's portrayal in television.
"There's a pecking order in Hollywood, and the movies are at the top of the pecking order," said Glantz, "and if we can change the movies, it will change in these other places."