World Health Organization calls for adult ratings worldwide for allowing smoking in movies

Lois Lane smoking
Lois Lane smoking in Superman II. Philip Morris paid six figures to have Lois smoke in this PG-rated movie.

A follow-up toa  series of stories I’ve done in the past few weeks. The World Health Organization has now jumped on board, calling for adult movie ratings for films that depict tobacco use.

What prompted my latest series of stories on this was watching “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” on a rented DVD and noticing there was virtually no smoking in the movie at all, even though it took place in 1963, which is literally during the height of the smoking era. Shortly afterward was a story about how data shows that depictions of smoking in movies, in particular PG and PG-13 movies, has dropped fairly dramatically since the MPAA in 2009 adopted guidelines discouraging (discouraging, not banning) smoking in movies marketed to teens and kids.

Yup, a real still from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, with real free advertising for Marlboros.

The new MPAA policy hasn’t been perfect or ideal, but for the most part it has been working. Studios have been voluntarily removing smoking from PG and PG-13 movies because they just aren’t interested in butting heads with the MPAA over it. In fact, Disney, which now owns the Marvel brand, has said no more smoking in any of its movies, including Marvel movies. That means Wolverine and Nick Fury and J.J. Jameson no longer get to chomp on cigars. Call it revisionist history, but hey, back in the day, James Bond used to actually spank women. Times change.

Anyway, this story about the data on smoking in movies claimed there were 10-29 depictions of smoking in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” I thought, “seriously? Really? I can’t remember a single one.” I had already sent the DVD back to Netflix, but my friend Nancy watched the movie for me and confirmed that there was no smoking in the movie. Not sure what “depictions of tobacco” means, according to Smokefree Movies.


I digress … a LOT. WHO has issued its own opinion that movies that depict tobacco use should be given an “adult” rating (R-rating in the U.S., but there’s myriad other terms for it in other countries.)

From a WHO press release:

“With ever tighter restrictions on tobacco advertising, film remains one of the last channels exposing millions of adolescents to smoking imagery without restrictions,” says Dr Douglas Bettcher, WHO’s Director for the Department of Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases.

“Smoking in films can be a strong form of promotion for tobacco products,” adds Dr Bettcher. “The 180 Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) are obliged by international law to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.”

Dr Armando Peruga, programme manager of WHO’s Tobacco-Free Initiative, says countries around the world have taken steps to limit tobacco imagery in films. “China has ordered that ‘excessive’ smoking scenes should not be shown in films. India has implemented new rules on tobacco imagery and brand display in domestic and imported films and TV programmes. But more can and must be done,” Dr Peruga adds.

I honestly believe this is an important issue because most tobacco advertising has been curtailed. No tobacco ads allowed on TV or radio and tobacco advertising in magazines has for 18 hours not been allowed to use cartoon characters such as Joe Camel. So, where is one of the biggest sources of kids continuing to get the idea that smoking is cool or hip — if not the biggest source? Hollywood, plain and simple. Hollywood has for nearly 100 years had a bizarre symbiotic relations with tobacco. In the 1930s and 1940s “cool” characters created by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall smoked; the tobacco industry actually started paying Hollywood to advertise its products beginning with Superman II in 1980, and yet even after this was exposed and banned by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, smoking depictions in PG and PG-13 movies actually went UP in the 2000s. Only by advocates making a huge stink about it, did the MPAA crack down on smoking in teen-marketed movies … a crackdown that wasn’t as severe as some people wanted, but has served its purpose and hasn’t infringed (In my opinion) on freedom of expression.

For the record, like F bombs, sex, and brain-splattering gore, I’m all for allowing as much smoking as a director wants in an R-rated movie. I’m all for freedom of expression. I just want it out of kid- and teen-marketed movies.