The surgeon general’s cigarette warning turned 50 on Jan. 11. A few days later, the White House released the 32nd Surgeon General’s Report, which highlighted several new dangers that smoking poses, including rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, colorectal cancer, and many more. With a seemingly endless list of damaging health effects, and 88 percent of adult smokers reporting that they started before they turned 18, it makes sense that some doctors are targeting the film industry, urging it to give any films with smoking an “R” rating.
“We’re just asking the movie industry to take smoking as seriously as they take profanity when applying the ‘R’ rating,” said Dr. James Sargent, co-director of cancer control at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, in a press release. “The benefit to society in terms of reduced health care costs and higher quality of life is almost incalculable.”
The Motion Picture Association of America first started rating movies in 1968, and was “aimed at giving parents the information they need to decide whether a film is appropriate for their family,” the website says. Sargent believes that by limiting smoking to R-rated movies, parents will be able to limit exposure. After all, children under 17 aren’t supposed to get into an R-rated movie without an adult.
Smoking is still prevalent in many movies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking appeared 2,818 times in 2012’s top-grossing movies. And although there were more incidences of cigarette smoking in R-rated films (1,640 times), they still showed up 1,155 times in PG-13 films (parental guidance suggested). Furthermore, that number more than doubled since 2010, when PG-13 films showed smoking 565 times.
The basis for this argument partially comes from a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics. It involved almost 6,500 teens and checked in on them every eight months from the ages of 10 to 14. During the follow-ups, the teens were asked about the movies they had seen and whether they had tried smoking. Based on their answers, the researchers found a correlation between increased exposure to smoking and smoking in real life. What’s more, they found that smoking was more prevalent in PG-13 movies than R-rated movies at the time, and that smoking could be reduced by 18 percent if it was eliminated from PG-13 movies.
Sargent, who was a co-author of the 2012 study, also said that smoking can be eliminated if parents take a “maximally authoritative” role against smoking — the study actually found that taking a stand like this could reduce smoking by 16 percent. “Smoking is a killer. Its connection to cancer, heart attacks, and chronic lung disease is beyond doubt,” Sargent said in the press release. “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.”