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Movie industry hasn’t stopped smoking, but it has cut back a lot

Moviegoers are much less likely to see scenes depicting smoking these days, but Hollywood could do more to keep tobacco images away from kids and teenagers, says a new report.

Moviegoers are much less likely to see scenes depicting smoking these days, but Hollywood could do more to keep tobacco images away from kids and teenagers, says a new report. One suggestion: Stamp an R rating on any smoke-filled movie.

The 88 top-grossing movies targeted at youths (rated G, PG, or PG-13) in 2010 contained 72 percent fewer scenes of smoking than did similar movies in 2005, according to the study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Movie companies that have adopted antitobacco policies saw the greatest declines, by far. Kids’ movies made by companies that cracked down on cinematic smoking saw 96 percent less onscreen tobacco use in 2010 than in 2005, the study shows, while movies by companies without antismoking policies saw a 42 percent decline.

“The movie industry as a whole needs to follow studios that have designed policies to limit tobacco in youth-rated movies,” Ursula Bauer of the CDC said during a teleconference with reporters.

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Among all 137 top-grossing movies of 2010 (of any rating), incidents of smoking declined 56 percent since 2005, says the CDC report, released Thursday. Between 1991 and 2011, 2005 was the peak for images of onscreen smoking.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the US, and 9 in 10 adult smokers began smoking when they were teenagers, noted Ms. Bauer. She also cited evidence that young people with the highest exposure to onscreen smoking are about twice as likely to try smoking as those with the least exposure.

Film companies with antismoking policies have “shown it’s possible to make high-quality, highly successful movies without filling them up with cigarettes,” says Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a lead author of the report.

Of the six big movie studios, Time Warner (Warner Bros.), Comcast (Universal Studios), and Disney have adopted policies designed to limit onscreen smoking. Viacom (Paramount), News Corp. (20th Century Fox), and Sony have not.

Fewer children would be exposed to smoking on the silver screen if the movie rating association set industrywide standards, the report says. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) could do this by automatically assigning an R rating to any film with tobacco use, it suggests.

The MPAA, which assigns ratings to movies, has rejected calls for an automatic-R system. Such a policy is unnecessary because nearly three-fourths of films with smoking are already rated R, says a spokeswoman for the group. Moreover, the MPAA since 2007 has factored onscreen smoking into its ratings decisions.

Fewer than half of all top-grossing movies released between 2007 and 2010 that featured smoking were rated R, according to a count by Dr. Glanz, who directs the Smoke Free Movies Project. He also questions whether the MPAA has ever bumped a movie up to an R rating on account of smoking.

The MPAA spokeswoman counters that “the purpose of the [rating] system is not to prevent filmmakers from putting content in their films,” but rather to “to provide information to parents about the level of content in each film.”

Paramount was criticized earlier this year when an antismoking group counted some 60 instances of smoking in a PG-rated animated movie, “Rango,” about a chameleon in the wild West. A spokeswoman told USA Today at the time that the title character never smokes and that the characters that do “are not intended to be celebrated or emulated.”

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The CDC study suggests several other ways to keep kids from mimicking characters or movie stars who light up onscreen, including a policy requiring antismoking ads before films that depict tobacco use.

Another suggestion is for states to limit subsidies to movie companies that make tobacco-laced films. States currently offer $1 billion per year in film subsidies, the report says. Fifteen states spent $288 million in 2010 subsidizing top-grossing movies that showed smoking – then budgeted another $280 million on tobacco-control programs for 2011, according to the report.

“There’s just no reason in these times” of tight budgets, says Glantz, “to be spending a penny of taxpayer money to help sell cigarettes.” States already ban subsidies for certain movies, such as adult films and wedding videos, he said.

Representatives of two of the three major movie companies without antismoking policies – Paramount and Sony Pictures – say they take the issue of onscreen smoking seriously and will work to further reduce images of smoking in their films.

A Paramount spokesperson said that the company certifies that it does not receive payments in return for tobacco product placement in its films, and that it includes antismoking messages on its youth-rated DVDs. A representative for News Corp. did not respond to a call for comment in time for publication of this report.