Harvard tells Hollywood to ban cigarettes.

Inside the big picture show.
April 6 2007 1:05 PM

Puff Piece

Harvard tells Hollywood to ban cigarettes from kids' movies.

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Cold turkey: The Motion Picture Association of America has gotten caught up in a web of its own devising when it comes to the issue of smoking in movies.

The MPAA has a relatively new boss—Dan Glickman—and as we reported earlier this week, he's making some moves. The organization has come down on revolting ads for the horror film Captivity, perhaps hoping to impress the government with its responsiveness on the issue of Hollywood selling violence in a manner that reaches children. With the Federal Trade Commission about to release a report on that issue, Glickman's actions may be too little, too late. And the MPAA could have similar problems when it comes to smoking.

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Powerful anti-smoking groups have been pushing the MPAA to slap any movie that shows smoking with an automatic R rating, unless that movie deals with a historical figure who actually smoked (think Good Night and Good Luck) or shows people suffering hideous consequences as a result of their folly. According to the research of a group called Smoke Free Movies, most PG-13 movies depict smoking, and that contributes to hundreds of thousands of kids taking up cigarettes.

Last October, Glickman sent a letter to 40 attorneys general addressing the MPAA's concerns about smoking in movies. He said that the MPAA was turning to the Harvard School of Public Health for guidance. "My objective is to gain consensus among the member companies of MPAA on Harvard's pending recommendations, and then begin implementation," he said.

Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at U.C. San Francisco and creator of the Smoke Free Movies campaign, says Glickman probably expected Harvard to come up with a limp education campaign and leave it at that. But Harvard got tough. In recommendations presented to the industry last month and made public this week, Harvard said the studios should eliminate smoking altogether from films "accessible to children and youth."

Harvard didn't mention specific ratings, but the dean of the school offers this statement to us: "We're suggesting that they take smoking out of youth accessible films: G, PG and PG-13, which make up 85% of all movies." (From where we sit, Harvard could just as well throw in the R movies because so many parents bring their kids to them as if they were Sunday-school picnics.)

According to Glantz, Glickman's letter to the attorneys general now looms large: "We think the MPAA is in some state of disarray because this commitment has been made." The MPAA has not acted, but apparently it is pressing the studios to take a position. Warner is said to be among the most sympathetic, but it's doubtful even that studio will go with an automatic R for smoking.

As things stand now, studios have individual policies on smoking in their films. But one top executive acknowledges that at her studio that policy is "very, very vague" and generally has been applied to family movies (presumably G and PG) only.

The studios are an unwieldy group. Some think the industry needs at least to appear responsible on this issue. Others are concerned that Glickman's handling of the situation may suggest that he's not attuned to the needs of the town. If the MPAA imposes a policy on smoking, they reason, can pressure to ban depictions of unhealthy eating be far behind? (Glantz says if science proves that trans fat is as lethal as tobacco, that argument could be made.)

But executives have their questions. What if there's a Marlboro billboard in the background during a scene on the street? If a film is shooting in Europe, does that mean that no one in a cafe can be seen with a Gaulois? What if the movie is a period piece? What if a big-deal director wants a character to smoke and gets pissy if he doesn't get his way?