October 17, 2019

Ontario gov’t censors tobacco-content ratings

In a pre-emptive move serving the commercial interests of Hollywood studios already heavily subsidized by Toronto, Ontario’s government has killed off its decades-old provincial film rating service.

The Ontario Film Rating Board (OFRB) was the only ratings office in Canada that even tried to warn parents about the toxic tobacco content in American films.

Instead, on Sept. 29, 2019, the government announced that Ontario (pop. 14.5 million) will import its movie ratings from British Columbia (pop. 5 million), which is 2,600 miles away.

How does British Columbia rate?

Here's an example: British Columbia rated Joker (AT&T: WarnerMedia) “14A” — and never mentions its 141 tobacco incidents. By its second week, the film delivered three billion tobacco impressions to moviegoers in the U.S. and Canada.

In the U.S., the studios' lobbying group, the Motion Picture Association, rated Joker “R” (under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian) "for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images." BC's 14A rating lets adolescents into a film unquestioned.

By opting into BC’s looser and tobacco-blind film ratings — and making them a de facto national rating standard — the Ontario government denies parents any advance warning that a film includes tobacco imagery conclusively proven to recruit millions of new young smokers in North America. And Ontario parents have no redress.

Killing off homegrown ratings adds injury to insult.

The Ontario film ratings were far from perfect to begin with. Since 2002, reports the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit (OTRU), 87 percent of movies with smoking released in Ontario were youth-rated G, PG or 14A, compared to 53 percent in the United States.

But in 2008, Ontario public health groups won some small-type warnings about tobacco content in Ontario’s ratings online. In 2012, Ontario parents finally saw tobacco content mentioned on some movie posters and advertising trailers.

More recently, with 78 percent public approval, members of Ontario’s provincial parliament have read in petitions backing the adult rating (18A) for most future films with tobacco imagery — a measure that Canada (and Ontario) is bound to pursue as a party to the global health treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

MPA-member studios have refused to adopt adult ratings.

U.S. studios raking in hundreds of millions from Canada’s generous (and indiscriminate) film production subsidies also enjoy a box office windfall from dumping their R-rated movies with smoking into Canada’s youth market.

To stop the movement to properly classify future films that promote smoking, it would make sense for these media companies to shuttle Ontario's ratings across the continent to Vancouver, out of the reach of Ontario’s parents and civic groups.

To do so without advance notice was, of course, brutal. So Ontario’s government has — after the fact — opened a “public consultation” on the fate of Ontario’s Film Classification Act (2005).

In this emergency, we strongly urge Canada’s public health groups, no matter their location, to use this process to point out that Canada’s film ratings have betrayed the interests of Canadian families, by suppressing vital information about the tobacco content of hundreds of top-grossing, youth-rated films.

The ratings have also failed to meet Canada’s basic obligations under the WHO FCTC treaty.

For urgent information, please contact Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, at



Glantz SA, Polansky JR. Ontario gov’t just killed its movie ratings: How this threatens other tobacco gains in Canada. Memorandum. UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. 14 October 2019.

Narkar R, O'Connor S, Schwartz R. Youth exposure to tobacco in movies in Ontario, Canada: 2002-2018. Ontario Tobacco Research Unit. Toronto, Canada. 23 July 2019.

Polansky JR, Driscoll D, Garcia C, Glantz SA. Smoking in top-grossing US movies, 2018. UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. 10 April 2019.

World Health Organization. Smoke-free movies: From evidence to action (3rd edition). World Health Organization, Tobacco Free Initiative. Geneva, Switzerland. 1 February 2016.

Joker images from trailer