On March 12, 2015, Dr. Gina Intinarelli, a cardiothoracic nurse from UCSF, and I attended the Walt Disney annual meeting. During the question and answer period, Gina told Disney CEO Robert Iger of the thousands of patients with heart disease and cancer she had cared for. Virtually all of these people started smoking as kids, she reported. The US Surgeon General had concluded that exposure to smoking onscreen caused kids to start smoking. She pointed out that nearly half of Marvel movies had contained smoking. (Disney owns Marvel.) She then asked Mr. Iger for if Disney would implement an “ironclad” policy of keeping smoking out of kid-rated movies.
Iger responded definitively. Here is how it was reported in The Guardian:
Walt Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said he would “absolutely prohibit” smoking in all Disney films going forward, including those produced by the studio’s wholly owned comic-book-movie division, Marvel Studios, and Star Wars unit Lucasfilm.
“I thought it was the right thing for us to do,” said Iger, who was responding to a query from an investor. “We are extending our policy to prohibit smoking in movies across the board: Marvel, Lucas, Pixar and Disney films,” he said. “Except when we are depicting a historical figure who may have smoked at the time. For instance, we’ve been doing a movie on Abraham Lincoln, he was a smoker, and we would consider that acceptable.
“But in terms of any new characters that are created for any of those films, under any of those labels, we will absolutely prohibit smoking in any of those films.”
I was the next person to question Mr. Iger. I thanked him, but pointed out that the policy on Disney’s website (which dates from 2007) contained loopholes for “creative necessity” and that many Disney films in recent years (but not last year) included smoking. He said that this decision had been made in the last 48 hours and that the policy on Disney’s website would be updated accordingly.
If the actual policy is written as unequivocally as Iger’s statement yesterday, this is a huge step forward and a major contribution to preventing millions of deaths worldwide.
I then told Mr. Iger that the CDC has reported that an R rating for smoking would save a million US kids lives and asked him if Disney would follow up its policy by using its position as one of the six companies that comprise the board of and control the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) if it would public urge other media companies to follow its lead and support an R rating for smoking.
He responded that he would not tell other companies what to do and that Disney has no control over the rating of individual films and that the rating system was independently managed .
I responded that I was not talking about Disney controlling ratings of individual films but rather changing the MPAA’s rules that it uses to rate individual films on the grounds that the MPAA board makes MPAA policy.
He responded that we should be talking to the MPAA. It told him that there had been several meetings by health groups with the MPAA, and that the MPAA told them to work with the studios. It pointed out that we had a situation in which the MPAA was telling us to talk to the studios and the studios were point to the MPAA, leaving no one to solve the problem, but that the MPAA board (which consists of the six major studios) had the authority to solve the problem.
Mr. Iger also questioned Disney’s lawyer (who sits on the MPAA board) as well as Alan Horn (head of Walt Disney Studios) about these arrangements.
Here is how Hollywood Reporter reported the exchange:
Iger was called on to reiterate his pledge of not showing characters smoking on TV or in movies except where necessary for historical accuracy, though one shareholder asked him to go further by asking the MPAA to give an R-rating to movies that include smoking and to rally other studios to support such a measure.
Iger said it would be "a little presumptuous" to tell other studios what to do or to tell the MPAA how it should rate movies. The shareholder noted that he had spoken to the MPAA about his idea, and the MPAA told him to speak to the studios, so he was now getting the runaround.
"I think the MPAA is kind of talking out of both sides of its mouth, and the result is a million kids are going to die unnecessarily," said the shareholder.
While we did not win a commitment to push the MPAA, I do think that this exchange did inform both Mr. Iger, as well as Disney’s senior management and full board, about the MPAA’s behavior and the fact that the MPAA was pushing us on to the studios. Perhaps this exchange will lead to some changes in the future.
Overall, a good day.
I also want to thank As You Sow and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility for working with us over the years to press all the studios on the smoking issue. Their work, including pursuing several shareholder resolutions, made an important contribution to this step. They also obtained proxies (from Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and Trinity Health) so Gina and I could attend the meeting.
Press coverage of Disney's smokefree shift: