Movies with smoking scenes should be slapped with adult content ratings, some researchers say.

While Canada and the U.K. have ratified the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, they are not yet enforcing it, according to Christopher Millett of London's Imperial College.

He makes the point, along with his co-authors, in this week's issue of Public Library of Science's journal's PloS Medicine.

The convention says all future movies with scenes of smoking should  be given an adult content rating, with the possible exception of movies that depict the dangers of tobacco use or smoking by an actual historical figure who smoked.

The main reason to support the film rating recommendation is to create an economic incentive for producers to leave smoking out of movies marketed to youth, the authors said.

"Governments should ensure that film subsidy programs are harmonized with public health goals by making films with tobacco imagery ineligible for public subsidies," they concluded.

What's worse, "many governments provide generous subsidies to the U.S. film industry to produce youth-rated films that contain smoking and as such indirectly promote youth smoking."

Provincial data suggests about $32 million in annual public funding was used during the fiscal year 2008-2009 to subsidize youth-rated U.S. films that were shot in Canada and contained smoking, the researchers said.

In comparison, Canada spent $150 million on tobacco control the same year.

Overall, the analysis suggested that between one-half and two-thirds of U.S.-produced films youth rated and government subsidized in Britain, Canada or the U.S., contain smoking.

Arguing against censorship

Because of differences in film rating practices, Canadian and British youth are exposed to higher levels of tobacco imagery in films that rated and marketed for youth than their U.S. counterparts, the authors said.

As of May, the researchers said smoking was not yet part of the film classification criteria in any province but an Ontario health ministry committee recommended that films and video games with tobacco imagery receive an adult rating of 18A.

A second paper appearing in the same issue strongly argues against adult rating for films with smoking scenes.

Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia and Matthew Farrelly from RTI International argued that:

  • The link between exposure to smoking in movies and smoking uptake is not a direct one.
  • Exposure to smoking scenes is much wider than just films, including the internet.
  • Adult classification of films is a highly inefficient way of preventing youth exposure to adult-rated content.
  • Censorship is not the best approach for this public health issue.

"We believe that many citizens and politicians who would otherwise give unequivocal support to important tobacco control policies would not wish to be associated with efforts to effectively censor movies other than to prevent commercial product placement by the tobacco industry," Chapman and Farrelly said.

None of the authors received specific funding for the articles and none declared any competing interests related to the article.