Teens, Smoking, and the Movies: Why Motion Picture Rating Matters

July 13, 2012

Teens, Smoking, and the Movies: Why Motion Picture Rating Matters

Not too long ago the definition of a rated ‘R’ movie was a far cry from what it is today. I remember clearly the first time I saw one, not to date myself, but it was The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. I’m not even sure that my parents knew about it at the time. And, looking back, the ‘R’ nature of that film is rather tame compared to some of the more recent ones I’ve seen. Common Sense Media seems to agree, putting the age appropriate for viewing this film at 14, which one would assume is because of violence (a bloody knife fight and gun shooting) and sex (though there is no nudity). In the grand scheme of modern drama, The Bodyguard is really tame and chaste though. There are, however, scenes where actors both drink and smoke. A point which is covered in Common Sense Media’s rundown of the film. However, the official MPAA ‘R’ rating is merely for the film’s “language.” Smoking, Teens, and the Movies The reason for a film’s ‘R’ rating may change, however, if the authors of a recent study conducted by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire have their way. The team, led by Dr. James Sargent, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Center at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, has an interesting perspective on the role that smoking in motion pictures can play. This study, titled “Influence of Motion Picture Rating on Adolescent Response to Movie Smoking” will be published in the August print edition of the journal Pediatrics. It concludes that casting smoking as an ‘R’-rated action in movies could have a positive effect on the overall numbers of youth smoking in this country. As Dr. Sargent explains,

Kids start to smoke before they're old enough to think about the risks; after starting they rapidly become addicted and then regret it. Hollywood plays a role by making smoking look really good. By eliminating smoking in movies marketed to youth, an R rating for smoking would dramatically reduce exposure and lower adolescent smoking by as much as one-fifth.

But how do they know this? To conduct this study, Sargent and his team conducted a survey that included 6,522 U.S. adolescents. They took this survey several times over eight month intervals. They then looked at movie smoking exposure (what they labeled MSE) in 532 recent and popular films. They then divided the films into one of three ratings brackets: G/PG, PG-13, or R. Shockingly, the median MSE in PG-13 films was actually three times higher than in R films. The effect of the smoking exposure, however, was largely equal. Armed with this data, researchers were able to then prove that adolescent smoking could be eliminated up to 18% from current levels if the incidents of smoking in PG-13 films was eliminated entirely and all other factors contributing to youth smoking remained the same. What Can Be Done about Smoking and the Movies According to the study’s conclusion, “The equivalent effect of PG-13-rated and R-rated MSE suggests it is the movie smoking that prompts adolescents to smoke, not other characteristics of R-rated movies or adolescents drawn to them.” This perspective is quite contrary to what many people would assume about youth smoking and their exposure to it over time. We are long past the days when smoking was treated as a commonplace habit engaged in at home, work, and in public. I cannot remember the last time I had to air out my clothes after going out at night in the same ways I did in college. Yet the persistence of youth smoking in this country would indicate that we are far from achieving the desired effect of eliminating the practice altogether. Despite public bans on smoking everywhere from public parks to hospital property, there are thousands of youth who begin smoking each year. As educators and parents, we are left to question, why? The conclusions of this study begin to shed some light on the apparent hypocrisy of our popular culture in this regard. Despite the PSA-laden attempts to stop smoking among all the population, the numbers of “closet” smokers and the portrayals of smoking in Hollywood can confuse the delicate, and generally younger, adolescent mind. Maybe this study is right, maybe, “the movie industry to take smoking as seriously as they take profanity when applying the R rating” as Dr. Sargent urges. What do you think?

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