MPAA Rating System

The simplest way to warn parents about movies that include on-screen smoking is to update the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Ratings System.  Under this proposal, the MPAA would give a mandatory R-rating to any movie that includes smoking, with a few notable exceptions (historical context, accurate portrayal of negative consequences of smoking).  In this way, tobacco use (which causes 440,000 deaths each year) would be given the same weight as gun violence (which causes 30,000 deaths each year), and nudity and foul language (which cause NO deaths).

This change in the MPAA ratings system is supported by many groups that are trying to protect children and teenagers from the marketing practices of Big Tobacco.  This includes the Attorney Generals from a number of states, who wrote a series of terse letters on May 1, 2007 regarding this issue (If you are interested, you can read the actual letters to Disney, Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Warner Bros., Weinstein Company, the MPAA, National Organization of Theatre Owners (NATO), the Directors Guild of America (DGA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and Writers Guild of America (WGA)).

Under mounting pressure from health advocacy groups and the States’ Attorney Generals, the MPAA begrudgingly decided to “consider” smoking as they rate movies.  You are welcome to read the new MPAA policy; what you will find is that the there will be no objective criteria applied by the MPAA as they “consider” onscreen smoking.  This makes a mockery of the entire ratings system, a system that parents use to guide them as they choose which films their children should view.

Why would the MPAA resist such a simple solution?

The answer, as always, is money.

The MPAA can claim it is over “freedom of speech” and “artistic integrity”, but an R-rating will not have any impact on the ability to include smoking in a particular film.  An R-rating is NOT censorship; it simply identifies the presence of on-screen smoking.  For example, the same R-rating has never kept violence, nudity, or foul language out of a movie.

The MPAA can claim it is over “personal responsibility”.  They want to make the claim that parents should be held accountable for what their children see.  They are absolutely correct!  We are accountable!  And, in order to make good decisions, we utilize the MPAA ratings system, so, by all means, feel free to show a little “corporate responsibility” and include ALL of the information we need when you rate a film.

However, the MPAA will fight this for as long as they can because adding an R-rating for on-screen smoking will cost them money.  Right now, they can take product placement money from the tobacco industry to include smoking, then turn around and market those films to teenagers with G, PG, and PG13 ratings. 

Teenagers purchase the vast majority of movie tickets, and R-ratings would have a clear impact on box office sales.  The real reason that the MPAA is resisting the mandatory R-rating is that they would have to decide which is worth more to the movie industry:  the money they receive from tobacco pay-offs, or the money they receive from ticket sales.

Like a spoiled toddler, the film industry will continue to stick their hands in both cookie jars until we give them a timeout.  In the meantime, half of all teenagers who light up their first cigarette will do so because they saw it in a movie… movies your kids see like Superman Returns, Talladega Nights, and Spiderman 3.

So join the fight, and help discipline two industries that refuse to discipline themselves!


Barry Hummel., Jr., MD, FAAP

Through his work in the film industry, Dr. Hummel became the Research Coordinator for the Blue Planet Marine Research Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by James Cameron. In addition to his research responsibilities, Dr. Hummel edited and published the organization’s newsletter and produced several documentaries about the work of the foundation.