R-rating FAQs

Does the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) already rate movies for smoking?

No. Its most recent Classification and Rating Rules (2010) never mention 'tobacco' or 'smoking.' On May 10, 2007, the MPAA announced that it would "consider" smoking in its film ratings. Since then, the MPAA has not identified any film whose rating was elevated for smoking. The MPAA has assigned small-print 'smoking' descriptors to a fraction of all the top-grossing, youth-rated films with tobacco imagery. But there is no evidence that these labels reduce kids' exposure.

Does the R-rating restrict creative freedom?

No. US film ratings are determined by the film industry itself, so there are no First Amendment issues. From 2002 to 2014, 36 percent of US films were R-rated for sex, violence, drug use, teen drinking or strong language. On average, R-rated films gross 40 percent less at the box office than youth-rated films, but R-rated films also cost less to produce and promote. When future films with tobacco are R-rated, filmmakers can still include smoking in any film — and accept the appropriate rating — just as they do now.

Would Winston Churchill’s cigar be R-rated?

No. In fact, the R-rating policy includes a specific exception for depictions of actual historical figures who actually smoked, as in biographical dramas or documentaries. For example, 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (2005), a fictional film about 1950s broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, would still be rated PG. Unambiguous depictions of health harm from tobacco use would also be excepted from an R-rating. After decades of promotional deals between the film and tobacco industries, however, such realistic depictions of tobacco remain rare. Exceptions include 'Constantine' (2005), 'The Constant Gardener' (2005), and 'Crazy Heart' (2010).

Does the policy ban smoking in movies?

No. Nobody is proposing to ban smoking in movies. The proposal would simply add tobacco imagery to the list of content that receives an R-rating already. This will reduce kids’ exposure to tobacco imagery from the movies they see most: G, PG and PG-13 films. From 2002 to 2014, youth-rated films delivered 55 percent of all tobacco impressions to US theater audiences.

Is the R-rating a form of censorship?

No. The government is not involved in US film ratings. The film industry voluntarily rates its own product. Pressure on filmmakers comes from other directions: studio-brokered product placement deals, studio-ordered script rewrites, and studio control over final cuts. In the case of tobacco product placement, film producers gave the tobacco companies final script approval. R-rating tobacco imagery actually helps protect filmmakers from such commercial threats to their creative independence.

Why R-rate tobacco, a legal product?

MPAA rules already refer to 'mature themes, language, depictions of violence, nudity, sensuality, depictions of sexual activity, adult activities (i.e. activities that adults, but not minors, may engage in legally), and drug use.' Why not specifically include tobacco imagery? Unlike frank language, sex or fighting — all of which sell tickets — tobacco bought its way on screen for eight decades and remains the leading cause of preventable death in the US and other countries.

Is R-rating tobacco a 'slippery slope'?

No. People who object to certain kinds of movie or television content, from graphic violence to bare skin, regularly target the film industry. That's why the rating system exists. But tobacco causes more US deaths than criminal violence, drunk driving, and illegal drugs combined. Ninety percent of smokers start in their teens. Exposure to on-screen tobacco imagery is a major cause of youth smoking. Besides, Hollywood and the tobacco industry have a long, documented history of commercial collaboration. This is a major public health issue, not a matter of taste. And it's about a rating, not a ban. People willing to pay $15 to watch somebody smoke will still have plenty of R-rated smoking to watch.

Won’t kids still see R-rated movies?

Teens see half as many R-rated films as they do youth-rated films, just about like adults. After the R-rating gets smoking out of the youth-rated films, which account for most of kids' exposure, kids will still be exposed to smoking in R-rated films. That’s why anti-smoking advertisements should be shown before all films with tobacco imagery, as a complementary policy. Research shows that these spots help reduce the promotional power of smoking in a movie. But they're no substitute for the R-rating itself.

What about films with fewer tobacco images?

A film with fewer incidents may deliver fewer impressions on average. But some films with little smoking deliver lots of impressions. That’s because incidents and audience size are both factors in estimating tobacco impressions. A film with a few incidents but a large audience can account for more audience exposure — and consequent health effects — than a film with lots of smoking but a small audience. Between 2002 and 2014, films with fewer than ten tobacco incidents each delivered up to 400 million tobacco impressions. Sixty more films with fewer than thirty incidents each delivered between 250 million and 1.7 billion tobacco impressions.