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Open Access Publications from the University of California

One year later: Are MPAA's tobacco labels protecting audiences?


In the twelve months (May 10, 2007-May 9, 2008) 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” — the explanatory labels associated with each MPAA rating — to most youth-rated movies with smoking released to theaters nationwide. Only 12 percent (4/34) of youth-rated, top box office films with tobacco imagery received tobacco descriptors.

Percentage of movies with smoking: Of the movies that achieved “Top Ten” box office ranking for at least a week, released in the twelve months after the MPAA’s May 10, 2007 announcement, 61 percent (95/155) featured tobacco including:

• 38 percent of G and PG movies (13/34)

• 58 percent of PG-13 movies (39/67)

• 80 percent of R-rated movies (43/54).

In all, 55 percent (52/95) of top box office movies with smoking released in 2007-8 were youth-rated G, PG or PG-13.

Number of tobacco incidents: Content analysis of the 2007-8 top box office movie sample finds a modest 29 percent decline in the number of PG-13 tobacco incidents. This decline is beyond random year-to-year fluctuation compared to the previous four years. Other rating categories were substantially unchanged.

Impact on theater audiences: The total number of tobacco impressions delivered to theater audiences by youth-rated movies with tobacco imagery also displayed a modest decline (31 percent) in the 2007-8 period, but the it may be attributable to year-to-year random fluctuations.

MPAA’s use of tobacco descriptors: Only 10 percent of youth-rated tobacco impressions delivered to theater audiences by films rated and released since May 10, 2007 were delivered by films that carried MPAA tobacco descriptors. (None of 29 R-rated movies with smoking rated and released after May 10, 2007 were tobacco-labeled.) Application of descriptors was unrelated to the amount of tobacco imagery in particular films. It was strongly related to whether the film was being released by an MPAA member company (not an independent) and if the film was destined for wide release. Only 5 percent (5/95) of all top box office films with tobacco imagery released between May 10, 2007 and May 9, 2008 carried an MPAA tobacco descriptor.

Conclusion: Because of the MPAA’s failure to label most PG-13 films from major studios with smoking, its tobacco rating policy cannot be directly linked to the modest but statistically detectable decline in PG-13 rated tobacco incidents during the last year. Instead, this drop appears to be the result of individual efforts by some studios to reduce tobacco incidents in some films. As was the case in 1998-1999, an observed decline may prove temporary. Only an industry-wide set of uniform policies, including an R-rating for future on-screen tobacco, can make this modest advance more substantial — and permanent. Meanwhile, the decline in PG-13 incidents demonstrates that film industry changes beneficial to public health are feasible and do not reduce admissions.

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