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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Smoking Presentation Trends in U.S. Movies 1991-2008


Tobacco presentations in commercial motion pictures are of serious public health concern because cumulative exposure to this imagery causes large numbers of adolescents to start smoking. An estimated 52% of adolescent smoking initiation is attributed to this exposure.

To examine trends in the number of tobacco presentations over time, by Motion Picture Association of America age-classification and North American distributor, we surveyed a large sample of films released to U.S. theaters 1991-2008 to trace the proportion of smoking and smokefree films, incidence of tobacco imagery in films with smoking, tobacco impressions (incidents times paid admissions) delivered to theater audiences, and tobacco brand display.

Policy advocacy aimed at reducing adolescent exposure to tobacco in youth-rated (G, PG and PG13) films by modernizing the rating system to rate smoking movies R, with some specific exceptions, has been directed at the major studio distributors and their parent corporations since 2001. Some companies have adopted public stances that reflect growing public concern over the issue of smoking in youth-rated films. We pay particular attention to smoking trends in youth-rated films over recent years.


Analysis of 1,769 films released over the past 18 years established that:

• Most youth exposure to on-screen smoking occurs in youth-rated films, particularly PG13. In 2008, PG13 films delivered 65% of tobacco impressions (11.7 billion of the 18.1 billion impressions) and G/PG films delivered another 1% (200 million).

• The fraction of all films that are smokefree has been growing since the late 1990s, yet still remains below 50% even for youth-rated (G/PG/PG13) films.

• Tobacco incidents per film have fallen by about half since 2005, led by youth-rated films. The total number of tobacco incidents on screen remains above levels seen in the late 1990s.

• The number of films with tobacco brands has, if anything, increased. Marlboro, the brand most frequently chosen by adlescent smokers, was displayed most often — accounting for 75% of brand display in 2008, for example.


• Tobacco incidents have nearly disappeared from Disney’s G and PG films.

• In recent years, around 75% of films released by GE (Universal) have featured tobacco — more than from any other major studio. In 2008, tobacco incidents per PG13 film (on the rise) were as high as incidents per R-rated film (on the decline).

• Tobacco incidents in News Corp. (Fox) films have been relatively few in recent years. In three out of the last five years, 66% or more of News Corp.’s youth-rated films have been smokefree, a record rivaled only by Disney.

• Sony, one of the largest film producer-distributors, has shown no sustained change in tobacco content since the mid-1990s. No more than 40% of Sony’s PG13 films were smokefree in any year.

• At Warner Bros., the prolific studio owned by Time Warner, tobacco incidents in youth-rated films declined between 2005 and 2007, but the trend reversed in 2008. Over the last three years, the percentage of Time Warner’s youth-rated films that were smokefree dropped below 50% to 39%.

• Viacom’s Paramount films have ranged between 25% and 50% smokefree since the late 1990s, displaying no real change.

• Independent producer-distributors (large and small) account for a growing number of theatrical releases. In 2008, indies included a record number of tobacco incidents in their youth-rated films: twice as many as in 2007 and nearly four times as many as in 2006. By last year, only about one in three youth-rated films released by independents was smokefree.


• This film survey’s evidence of limited progress at some companies, and none at others, suggests that an industry wide solution, including R-rating future smoking, is needed to achieve substantial, permanent reductions in dangerous youth exposure to on-screen smoking.

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