Warning Labels

If the MPAA will not make the most efficient change and require an R-Rating for films that contain onscreen smoking, we need to work on alternative systems to alert the public… much like the warning labels that appear on tobacco products themselves.

Most of the organizations working on this issue have identified the following alternative strategies, all of which are designed to hold the tobacco companies accountable for their actions:


Certify no pay-offs
The producers should include language in the closing credits declaring that nobody on the production received anything of value from anyone in exchange for using or displaying tobacco. This would include cash money, free cigarettes or other gifts, free publicity, or interest-free loans.

This is important because the U.S. tobacco industry has a documented record of secret payola and product placement in Hollywood. After the Surgeon General’s original report on smoking and lung cancer, there was a slow steady decline in onscreen smoking.  To fight this trend, tobacco companies began paying for product placement.  Once-secret documents show that tobacco companies have also paid to have actors smoke or to show cigarette and cigar logos. In addition, tobacco companies have provided free products to production designers and prop people to decorate film sets.  They have even paid for movie crew jackets, rather than paying a producer directly.

This became such a problem that Congressional hearings were held, and in 1989 the tobacco industry assured Congress that they would stop “brand placement” in movies.  Since that promise, smoking in movies has rapidly increased (Glantz et al, 2004), currently reaching levels not seen since 1950!
Both the film industry and the tobacco industry deny that the payoffs continue.  Perhaps the reemergence of tobacco use in films is merely a coincidence.  If so, it certainly runs counter to the use of tobacco in the real world, which has dropped 50% since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report demonstrating the health consequences of smoking.

If it is a coincidence, the film industry should have nothing to hide and should be willing to acknowledge that fact in writing in a film’s closing credits.


Require strong anti-smoking ads
Studies in recent years have looked at the effects of viewing anti-smoking ads before a movie that includes on-screen smoking.  Researchers (Pechmann et al 1999; Edwards et al, 2004) found that adolescents who did not view the anti-smoking ads had a more favorable opinion about a smoker’s stature, which increased their intent to smoke.  Meanwhile, teenagers who saw the anti-smoking ads had significantly more negative thoughts about lead characters who smoked.

Studios and theaters should be required to include independently-produced, strong anti-smoking ads before any film with any tobacco presence, in any distribution channel, regardless of its MPAA rating.

By the way, movie trailers running as television ads frequently include smoking.  This is a way to flaunt a loophole on advertising tobacco products on television.  If the studios absolutely must run a movie trailer in which characters smoke, we should also require them to run an anti-tobacco advertisement or PSA just prior to the movie ad.  I know this might be a bit expensive… buying two adjacent advertising slots.  If it becomes too pricey, they could simply edit out the smoking scenes in their ads.


Stop identifying tobacco brands
Let’s face it!  There should be no tobacco brand identification in the background of any movie scene.  No tobacco products.  No tobacco signs.  It is, after all, exactly what the tobacco industry promised to in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement… and we should hold them to their word.

Meanwhile, smoking in the movies sells adolescents on tobacco; in fact studies have found that over half of all teenagers light up their first cigarette because of onscreen smoking (Dalton et al, 2003).  The largest U.S. tobacco company figured out more than two decades ago that keeping cigarettes on screen, branded or not, was key to the industry’s survival.

The tobacco industry currently denies that they pay for product placement.  But consider this:  When Reese’s Pieces end up in a film like E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial instead of M&M’s, are we to assume that no money changed hands?  Couldn’t generic jelly beans have been used instead?  If a can of Diet Coke appears prominently in a scene instead of a generic aluminum can, are we naïve enough to assume there was no payoff?  So, why should we believe that producers are not paid when a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, or a Marlboro logo, appears onscreen?


Recently, it was reported that old and new television shows are being altered by computer to include product placement, which sweetens the syndication deals for old shows.  It’s a brave, new world where Archie Bunker gets to enjoy a Budweiser Select; who cares if that brand didn’t even exist when the show was produced thirty years ago.

This not a free-speech issue, or some sort of constraint on artistic integrity.  In fact, one could argue that films like Lost in Translation and Monster have more artistic integrity because they used generic cigarette packs.  At least until somebody decides to retouch them by computer…

If tobacco brands are truly the only products that show up in movies without a product placement deal, it should be very easy to drop all tobacco brands now!


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.

Website: www.quitdoc.com