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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Two years later: Are MPAA’s tobacco labels protecting movie audiences?


In the two years (May 10, 2007-May 10, 2009) since the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) announced that “all smoking will [now] be considered” in movie ratings, the MPAA has not elevated the rating of a single motion picture released to theaters because of its tobacco content.

The MPAA has also failed to apply “tobacco descriptors” — in the explanatory labels associated with each MPAA rating — to most youth-rated movies with smoking rated by the MPAA and released to theaters nationwide. Since May 10, 2007 only 12 percent (10/84) of youth-rated, top box office films with tobacco imagery received MPAA tobacco descriptors. Only 7 percent (10/149) of all top box office films with tobacco content, including R-rated films, received descriptors.

Percentage of movies with smoking: Of the movies that achieved “Top Ten” box office ranking for at least a week, released in the two years after the MPAA’s May 10, 2007 announcement, 60 percent (181/301) have featured tobacco including:

• 22 percent of G and PG movies (15/67)

• 64 percent of PG-13 movies (87/135)

• 80 percent of R-rated movies (79/99).

In all, 56 percent (102/181) of the top box office movies with smoking released May 2007-May 2009 were youth-rated G, PG or PG-13. In 2008-9, only 6 percent (2/32) of top box office films rated G/PG featured tobacco imagery. This is a drop from the previous five years. However, it makes no substantial difference to young people’s exposure to on-screen smoking because, historically, there have been few G/PG films and these films have included little tobacco imagery.

MPAA’s use of tobacco descriptors: Of the 75 tobacco descriptors the MPAA assigned to films after May 10, 2007, 87 percent (65/75) went to PG and PG-13 films subsequently given limited or no US distribution or sent straight to video; 13 percent (10/75) were assigned to movies given wide distribution to US theaters. (None of the 65 movies with smoking rated “R” and released after May 10, 2007 were tobacco-labeled.)

Seventy-five percent of the 18 billion youth-rated tobacco impressions delivered to theater audiences by films rated and released since May 10, 2007 came from films without MPAA tobacco descriptors. Fewer than half (4/10) of PG-13 films featuring >50 tobacco incidents were given MPAA tobacco descriptors. No youth-rated films with tobacco distributed by Disney and News Corp. (Fox) carried a tobacco descriptor. No youth-rated, top box office film with tobacco brand display (n=5) was assigned a descriptor.

Conclusion: The MPAA’s rating “consideration” of tobacco content since May 2007 gives neither consumers nor the film industry predictable, evidence-based rating consequences for tobacco images in youth-rated films. There is no evidence that tobacco descriptors, even if they were to be consistently applied in the future, would directly or indirectly alter industry practice or reduce adolescent risk. An industry-wide set of uniform policies, including a binding R-rating for future on-screen tobacco, is required for substantial and permanent reductions in on-screen tobacco exposure.

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