The Motion Picture Association, Inc. (before 2019, aka the Motion Picture Asssociation of America or MPAA) is the trade group that protects the business interests of six major US film studios: AT&T (Warner Bros.), Comcast (Universal), Disney, Sony, Netflix and Viacom (Paramount). The MPA manages the US film rating system through its Classification and Rating Administration (CARA).
The MPA and its ratings partner, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), can implement a solution to smoking in youth-rated movies within the existing ratings system. The decision will be made by the MPA's board of directors, representing the major studios, with NATO's concurrence.
The major studios have known since at least 2003 that exposure to on-screen smoking is a physical health hazard for young audiences, but has refused to adopt the R-rating for future films with smoking recommended by national and international health authorities and state Attorneys General. Instead, the MPA has been limited by its studio board members to obscuring the issue:
Before 2007 | The MPA claims smoking by characters younger than 18 (such as high school students) is a factor in film ratings.
In practice | Of the 82 top-grossing US films showing youths smoking 2002-2017, 47 percent have been youth-rated PG or PG-13; 53 percent were R-rated for other reasons. Only three of these youth-rated films showing young people smoking — and none of the R-rated films — include a "smoking" descriptor in its rating.
May 2007 | After consulting with the Harvard School of Public Health in 2006, the MPA announces that all smoking will be a factor in its film ratings.
In practice | Of all top-grossing films with smoking released from May 2007 through 2017, 49 percent have been youth-rated (PG or PG-13). The MPA has assigned a smoking descriptor to only one R-rated film, a limited-release Polish documentary.
The MPA's May 2007 annoumncement also said it might label films with smoking to ensure "specific information is front and center for parents as they make decisions for their kids."
In practice | From May 2007 through May 2018, only 12 percent of all top-grossing, youth-rated films with smoking carried a "smoking" descriptor in their MPA ratings. In all, films that the MPA left unlabeled for smoking delivered 80 percent of all youth-rated tobacco impressions to US moviegoers of all ages.
2009 | The MPA interrupts North Carolina State Senate debate on landmark smokefree workplace legislation to demand a last-minute loophole for smoking in film productions. "The motion picture industry worries the bill would prevent actors from smoking on screen," reported the Associated Press.
News outlets reported, erroneously, that New York already exempted film productions from clean indoor air measures. California provides for an exemption, but producers choose to use non-tobacco products, which do not need one. Massachusetts exempts film sets from tonbacco-free regulations, but only if local authorities approve. Florida explicitly rejected such an exemption in 2002. New York City exempts live theatrical productions, but only with a state-granted waiver.
After the MPA intervened, North Carolina's 2009 smokefree workplace law granted an exemption to tobacco smoking by performers on a "motion picture, television, theater or other live production set."
2007-2011 | The MPA repeatedly claims that about 75 percent of films with smoking are already R-rated.
In practice| From 2002 to 2017, 36 percent of all top-grossing US films were R-rated. Of the films with smoking, 47 percent were R-rated.
Even if the MPA bases its claim on all of the films that it rates (for a fee) rather than those films actually seen on national theater screens, its sample is strongly biased toward R-rated films and away from the films released by the large film companies whose commercial interests it represents.
Why the film sample matters | From 2007 to 2017, the MPA reports rating about 8,000 feature-length films. But only 2,300 (29%) of them were top-grossing films, which account for more than 95 percent of domestic ticket sales. While a majority of the low-grossing and no-grossing films reviewed by the MPA are R-rated, only 36 percent of top-grossing films that people actually see in theaters are R-rated. And fewer than half of top-grossing films with smoking are already R-rated for other reasons: 47 percent, not 75 percent.
How MPA claims were received | Months before the MPA's 2007 announcement, its own consultant, Harvard School of Public Health, cautioned that merely labeling films with tobacco "would be the equivalent of the tobacco industry cynically putting smoking warnings on cigarette packages." After the announcement, senior US Senators warned that "the MPAA’s adoption of a highly subjective policy is not enough to curb the influence of smoking in the movies on the health of children. US health and medical groups also criticized the MPA's announcement:
WARNING: Watching movies with smoking poses a risk to your childrens' health...The decision by the MPA to "consider smoking as a factor" when rating movies is inadequate. Smoking in movies needs to be rated "R" now.
State Attorneys General address the studios directly | In September 2007, Vermont's Attorney General, William Sorrell, leader of state AGs engaged with the film and tobacco industries on smoking issues, declined a meeting with the MPA, citing its failure to substantiate its rating announcement, explaining:
We had hoped that the MPA and its member studios would follow the Harvard School of Public Health recommendation [solicited by the MPA] that depictions of tobacco smoking be eliminated from films accessible to children and youth.
The state Attorneys General suspended contact with the MPA in 2007 and have instead addressed the major studios and independents directly. View letters
2009 | In June, thirty-three AGs write to film companies to report the latest research findings, comment on the tobacco policies that some MPA member companies have published, and impell them all to take stronger action. Writes Gen. Sorrell:
...I urge all studios to fulfill the Harvard School of Public Health's recommendation that studios eliminate the depiction of tobacco use from films accessible to youth...[I]t is clear that every time the industry releases another movie that depicts smoking, it does so with full knowledge of the deadly harm it will bring to children who watch it. Read letter
In July, the MPA responds, on behalf of the film companies, by proposing a 'person-to-person' meeting of Gen. Sorrell, MPA president Glickman and veteran MPA political operative, Vans Stevenson. The meeting does not occur. Read letter
May 2012 | With smoking on screen again on the rise, thirty-eight state Attorneys General write to inform the the film companies that the US Surgeon General has concluded that exposure to on-screen smoking causes young people to smoke. Calling kids' continuing exposure a "colossal, preventable tragedy," the AGs again request the film companies to eliminate tobacco depictions in youth-rated movies:
Whether this is accomplished through meaningful, consistently enforced policies adopted by each studio across the industry, or through a change in the way movies are rated, or both, the bottom line is that action needs to be taken, now. Read letter
June 2018 | Seven US Senators led by Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) call on the MPA to "take action to reduce youth exposure to smoking imagery, including e-cigarette depictions, in youth-rated movies and ensure responsible and consistent practices in rating youth movies with tobacco imagery...."
Although the evidence connecting smoking imagery to youth smoking initiation is strong, MPAA has yet to take meaningful action to discourage tobacco imagery in films or effectively warn viewers and parents of tobacco’s presence in a movie. Our nation’s dramatic decline in youth tobacco use is a tremendous achievement, but on-screen depictions remain a threat to this progress and threaten to re-normalize tobacco use in our society. We cannot afford to lose any ground in this area. Read letter
Where the MPA stands now | The MPA does not mention "tobacco" or "smoking" anywhere in its official Classification and Ratings Rules, last revised in 2010. Its Advertising Administration Rules (2014) bars distributors only from showing "illegal smoking by minors" in advertising materials. The MPA's web site no longer carries any information about its May 2007 announcement about the ratings treatment of smoking.
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Official MPA rules
Reports on MPA tobacco rating practices
- Film-Flam: How MPAA/NATO rating practices hide the biggest media risk to kids (2010)
- Smoking in top-grossing US movies, 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018
MPA claims vs. reality
Harvard School of Public Health recommendations to the MPA