Category Archives: MPAA

Class-action lawsuit filed to force automatic R rating for smoking in movies

Bogart helped make smoking look cool — he also died of esophageal cancer in his 50s.

I’m not sure how I feel about this, it certainly seems a bit extreme. But, an interesting tactic here, nonetheless.

A class-action lawsuit was filed recently to force the MPAA to require an automatic “R” rating for any smoking in a movie. As it stands now, the MPAA has kind of a convoluted policy to discourage smoking in PG-13 movies, but not outright ban it. Smoking is allowed under a complex set of conditions — as long as it isn’t pervasive, if it’s historically accurate (say if the film takes place in the 1950s), if smokers are shown hating cigarettes or getting sick from smoking.


It’s under this convoluted set of rules that you get an early 1960s movie like “Man From U.N.C.L.E” that is rated PG-13 but has virtually no smoking, or a PG-13 movie like “Bridge of Spies,” which takes place in the late ’50s and early 60s and has several smoking scenes, or a really violent, foul-mouthed R-rated movie like “Deadpool” that despite its extremely hard R rating, has absolutely no smoking in it (mostly because of a Disney/Marvel studio policy that forbids smoking in its movies now).


The lawsuit was filed in federal court in California in late February. It seeks monetary damages for the promotion of tobacco use among kids and an injunction to immediately stop PG-13, PG and G ratings for any movies that depict tobacco use.

From a Hollywood Reporter article:

The lawsuit points out that since at least 2003, Hollywood has known that tobacco imagery in films rated “G,” “PG,” and “PG-13,” is one of the major causes of children becoming addicted to nicotine. Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. are said to have been given recommendations from health experts at leading universities throughout the country as well as the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the American Public Health Association, and yet are allegedly continuing to stamp “their seal of approval” on films meant for children that feature tobacco imagery.

Among the films cited are Spectre, Dumb and Dumber To, Transformers: Age of Extinction, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider Man 2, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, Men in Black 3 and The Woman in Black.

According to the complaint, “From 2003 when the defendants were notified that exposure to tobacco imagery in films causes children and adolescents to smoke, through 2015, youth-rated movies recruited approximately 4.6 million adolescents in the United States to smoke, of which approximately 1.5 million are expected to die from tobacco-induced diseases in years to come. And, at current rates, if defendants continue their current practice of certifying and rating films with tobacco imagery as suitable and appropriate for children and adolescents under the age of seventeen unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, defendants’ conduct will cause an additional 3.2 million American children alive today to smoke, and one million of those children to die prematurely from tobacco-related diseases including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and emphysema.”

The lawsuit demands a declaratory judgment that the industry’s film ratings practices amount are negligent, false and misleading and a breach of fiduciary and statutory duties. The lawsuit also aims for an injunction where no films featuring tobacco imagery can be given “G,” “PG” or “PG-13” ratings.

One of the reasons I’m not wild about this lawsuit is the current MPAA policy is more or less working. Is it working a bit too slowly for my tastes? Yeah, a bit, it’s certainly not perfect, and Hollywood has shown to be damned stubborn about the issue. But, studies have shown that smoking has dropped dramatically in PG-13 and lower-rated movies since the policy went into effect about seven or eight years ago (It’s been cut roughly 50 percent from 2008 and about 60 percent since 2004). It hasn’t been eliminated, but it has dropped. Mostly because studios just don’t want to expend the energy defending smoking scenes to the MPAA board. And some studios, like Disney/Marvel, have voluntarily banned all smoking in its movies. (And for the record, movies can depict all the smoking they want in R-rated movies as far as the MPAA  is concerned.).

bridge of spies smoking 2
Bridge of Spies, rated PG-13

According to the New York Times, the lawsuit, if it’s allowed to move forward, could result in blowing up the MPAA system, a voluntary rating system agreed to by all the studios in the 1960s to ward off potential governmental interference in movie ratings.

From the Times:

But judicial interference might also crack the ratings system wide open, exposing it to similar challenges by those who would like to see tougher ratings for portrayals of gun violence or drug use.

Key decisions are still months away. But the Forsyth suit, currently just a skirmish in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, has the look of a future battle royale — perhaps the biggest since 1968, when Jack Valenti, then president of the motion picture association, established the voluntary ratings system with an eye toward keeping the courts and lawmakers away.

While I may not be on-board with this lawsuit (my attitude is I actually do believe in the First Amendment. Give the MPAA another 10 years or so with the current policy — frankly, it’s working, so I’m not sure this lawsuit is necessary.), the issue of smoking in movies is a very valid one. One of the main pro-tobacco influences on kids for decades were movies, as smoking characters such as Lauren Becall, Humphrey Bogart (who died of esophogal cancer in his 50s) and James Bond were shown to be cool and suave and sophistated. And all this advertising for the tobacco industry was free. It wasn’t until 1980 that the tobacco industry actually started paying Hollywood studios to promote smoking and tobacco products, and disgustingly, this practise actually began with a kids’ movie — Superman II.

Lois Lane smoking
Philip Morris actually paid to have Lois Lane smoke in “Superman II”

The practise of tobacco product placement in movies was banned by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement. However, shockingly, depictions of tobacco use in PG-13 and PG movies actually went UP between 1998 and 2008 — the movie studios just kept giving the tobacco industry advertising … completely free of charge. This resulted in a grass-roots effort to change the MPAA rating system to include tobacco use as a factor.

Period smoking in “Bridge of Spies”

bridge of spies smoking 2
Mark Ryland in “Bridge of Spies,” playing Soviet agent Rudolf Abel. Abel died of lung cancer in his 60s.

I wrote a few weeks ago how there was virtually no smoking whatsoever in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” which is set in 1963, an era in which the majority of males smoked.

“Bridge of Spies,” also a period piece taking place from 1957 to 1961,  is a PG-13 rated film. In watching it this week, I noticed it did have smoking in it, though it wasn’t what I would call “pervasive” smoking. Was it more than necessary? Yeah, maybe.

Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and head of the CIA Allen Dulles are both depicted in the movie smoking. Abel, while he is in prison, asks for and receives a pack of cigarettes from his attorney, played by Tom Hanks. What is interesting about one scene between Hanks and Ryland, Ryland holds a cigarette the whole time, but never actually takes a smoke. He holds a burning cigarette and flicks ashes, but doesn’t actually smoke it.

Meanwhile Dulles spends a short scene smoking a pipe. (I think some KGB guy might have smoked in the movie, too. I can’t remember.)

bridge of spies smoking with inset
Mark Ryland, left, the real Rudolf Abel (inset).

The thing is, historically, both Abel and Dulles were smokers. In fact, the actor playing Abel (Mark Rylance, he won the award for Best Supporting Actor) actually did a remarkable job of mimicking exactly how Abel held his cigarette. Check out the photo I posted from the film, with the inset of the real Rudolph Abel. Dulles was also well-known for always smoking a pipe.

allen dulles
Allen Dulles in “Bridge of Spies,” at left, and in real life, at right.

Did seeing smoking in a PG-13 film bother me? A bit, I guess, but I have to concede that the movie was trying to be historically accurate, and in order to be historically accurate, it would be a bit awkward to have no smoking in the early 1960s. I give Steven Spielberg credit for not going overboard with the depictions of smoking. The truth of it is, in 1960, the majority of males did smoke. That’s a fact, and it’s certainly historically accurate to show people in that era smoking. I certainly didn’t think the smoking in the movie was what I would call “pervasive.” And the MPAA has loopholes for the R rating if smoking is shown in a historically accurate way and if it is not, in the MPAA’s words, “pervasive.” There’s also two “fucks” in “Bridge of Spies.” Like smoking, the F-bomb, as long as you’re not describing the sex act (A really silly rule, I know), will not trigger an R rating if it not “pervasive.”

Do I think it would have lessened the film if Spielberg had eliminated the smoking? Not really. People might have pointed out the inaccuracy of showing Dulles without a pipe. But, to be fair, despite, the PG-13 rating, it was a very adult film, slow, talky, no explosions or CGI and was definitely not marketed to teens.

Anyway, I was really struck how this movie differed from “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” in how it treated smoking in the early 1960s.

As an aside, Rudolf Abel died of lung cancer in 1971 at the age of 68. Allen Dulles died of pneumonia at the age of 75.


Holy Wolverine! No more smoking in Marvel movies?

Hugh Jackman as Clint Eastwood as Wolverine


Disney CEO Bob Iger announced last week that there will be no more smoking period in any film distributed by any Disney-affiliated studio rated PG-13 or lower from now on (Not sure Disney still makes R-rated movies, the studio did for a while through Touchstone.)

“We are extending our policy to prohibit smoking in movies across the board: Marvel, Lucas, Pixar, and Disney films,” said Iger.

I was already kind of aware that Disney had clamped down on smoking in its movies (Disney cartoons have a long history of portaying smoking to young audiences). However, here was the part of the story that struck me — Marvel movies include the X-Men (The Marvel mega-brand was purchased by Disney a few years ago.)


So, does that mean no more smoking for Wolverine from the X-Men? Wow, a cigar is a really big part of Wolverine’s persona. We’ll have to see if they follow through with that.

Other Marvel characters often seen chomping a cigar: Ben Grimm, Nick Fury and Sgt. Dugan from Captain America. I’m not sure if Nick Fury has been smoking in the recent Marvel movies. But, it’s a moot point now if he had been.

This also means you will not see any smoking in any “Stars Wars” movies, though off-hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen smoking in any “Star Wars” film. Did Obi-Wan smoke a pipe sometimes?

Nick Fury
Nick Fury


As it stands, very little (if any) smoking gets sneaked through the PG-13 rating today anyway. I believe what has happened is studios just don’t want to butt heads with the MPAA over smoking in PG-13 movies and have more or less voluntarily removed smoking from teen and kids’ movies. Smoking is still pretty much shrugged off in R-rated movies, which is fine.

However, Iger said smoking could still be allowed in some movies in a historical context. For instance, in a movie about Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln could be portrayed smoking his pipe.

Sgt. Nick
Sgt. Dugan


Of course, Disney will not be going back and wiping out smoking from all of its old movies, and I’m not one to advocate going that far.

BTW, I just HAD to find the cartoon that went along with that Goofy image. Here it is.