James Sargent and Susanne Tanski from Dartmouth and Mike Stoolmiller from the University of Oregon have thought of a way to decrease adolescent smoking rates. They suggest that film raters treat smoking like extreme violence and give movies that show smoking an ‘R’ rating. Currently, smoking is not considered a determining factor by the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system.
To test the relationship between movie ratings and smoking, about 6500 kids ages 10 to 14 were randomly recruited by telephone. Over the next two years, the youngsters were surveyed every eight months for tobacco and alcohol use. At each interview, the kids were given a list of 50 current and recent movie titles (out of a pool of over 500 films) and asked to list the ones they’d seen. All the movies had been screened by people carefully counting every incidence of onscreen smoking, no matter how trivial to the plot.
The probability of a kid commencing to smoke was highly correlated with his having seen more incidents of smoking on film. This isn’t surprising, considering that this year, the Surgeon General issued a report stating:
The evidence is sufficient to conclude that there is a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in movies and the initiation of smoking among young people.
Interestingly, most of the onscreen smoking was seen during PG-13 movies, mainly because that was the most common rating for movies watched by kids in the study age group. Therefore, the authors conclude that if the depiction of smoking earned a film an automatic R rating, children in the vulnerable 10-14 year age range would see far less smoking and fewer of them would begin smoking themselves. In fact, they predict a reduction in overall smoking onset of 18% by making this simple change.
Well, I say simple, though I’m sure that filmmakers and theaters alike would balk at such a change. Moviegoers might also object if the new rating made it more difficult for them to see their favorite films. On the plus side, if smoking were enough to earn a film an R rating, perhaps most directors would choose to simply eliminate this usually non-essential plot point from their films. That would be a win for everyone involved.