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

Humphrey_Bogart_by_Karsh_(Library_and_Archives_Canada)
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.

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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).

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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.).

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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.

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