October 31, 2019

Seeing more tobacco content, CDC recommends the "R"

After examining tobacco content in U.S. films since 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has put renewed weight behind R-rating future films with tobacco.

November 1, 2019, article in the CDC's premier journal MMWR, reports that smoking incidents more than doubled in PG-13 films between 2010 and 2018 — years when major studios' tobacco depiction policies supposedly aimed to reduce on-screen smoking.

The CDC also noted that a recent wave of heavy-smoking biographical films wiped out substantial gains against smoking in the studios' large-budget, all-fiction films. Researchers show that three-quarters of the smokers depicted in those "true story" films were invented characters, with no biographical basis.

The CDC frames the R-rating as an effective solution three times in the article, and states in its summary:

"Continued efforts are needed to reduce tobacco incidents in movies, particularly in PG-13 biographical dramas. Giving movies with tobacco incidents an R-rating would eliminate tobacco product imagery from youth-rated films."

The CDC called out a 120 percent increase in tobacco incidents in PG-13 films between 2010 and 2018, driven by the rapid increase in the number of biographical dramas. These films accounted for 82 percent of PG-13 tobacco incidents in 2018.

The widely-endorsed proposal to R-rate future films with tobacco imagery includes a possible exception for portrayals of actual, historical people who used tobacco, as in documentaries or biographical dramas. 

But packing bio films with fictional smokers, an abuse of the biographical exception, prevented any overall reduction in smoking in youth-rated films between 2010 and 2018. 

The studios' own tobacco policies vary in rigor and generally claim much broader and more subjective exceptions — for example, for "historical" smoking.


Acknowledgement | UCSF Smokefree Movies commends MMWR article co-authors Danielle Driscoll and Claire Garcia for resourceful leadership of Breathe California Sacramento Region's tobacco content surveys. For two decades, Breathe's comprehensive data has been the oxygen of this global public health initiative.


Resources |

Tobacco use in top-grossing movies — United States, 2010-2018 (full text)

Article highlights | CDC social media graphic

Smoking in top-grossing movies, 2018 (SFM trends charts)

Media company tobacco rankings, 2010-2018 (SFM fact sheet)

Biographical dramas, 2002-2018 (SFM table)