No smoking zone: Disney pics will kick the habit

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WASHINGTON -- Mickey Mouse went cold turkey Wednesday when the Walt Disney Co. told influential Congressman Ed Markey that it will ban smoking from the films it releases.

Disney president and CEO Robert Iger told Rep. Markey, D-Mass., that concerns raised by the lawmaker about cinema's influence on underage smoking prompted the action. Disney also plans to place anti-smoking ads on DVDs of films in which the actors light up.

While Disney's announcement made a big splash, it is not the only studio taking action. Universal Studios quietly adopted a more restrictive policy on smoking in April.

"The Walt Disney Co. shares your concern regarding deaths due to cigarette smoking," Iger wrote to Markey. "We discourage depictions of cigarette smoking in Disney, Touchstone and Miramax films. In particular, we expect that depictions of cigarette smoking in future Disney-branded films will be nonexistent."

Disney films are aimed at the family audience. Miramax and Touchstone tend to make more adult-oriented fare.

The move was welcomed by Markey, who has been a leading anti-smoking force in Congress.

"Disney's decision to take a stand against smoking is groundbreaking, and I commend CEO Bob Iger for this important commitment," Markey said. "Now it's time for other media companies to similarly kick the habit and follow Disney's lead."

Smoking in the movies is one of several areas in which the entertainment industry has been under pressure from Washington. Lawmakers and regulators are also pressing for them to promote healthier foods and cut down on violence and foul language.

According to the American Lung Assn., cigarette smoking has been identified as the most important source of preventable morbidity and premature mortality worldwide. Smoking-related diseases claim an estimated 438,000 American lives each year, and about 90% of smokers begin smoking before age 21.

American Legacy, a nonprofit created out of landmark litigation between the tobacco industry and states attorneys general, claims that 90% of all films depict smoking, and children with the highest exposure to smoking in movies were nearly three times more likely to start smoking.

It contends that tobacco is featured in three quarters of G-, PG- and PG-13-rated movies and 90% of R-rated movies.

Legacy president and CEO Cheryl Healton praised Disney and urged other entertainment companies to do more.

"Today's pledge by the Walt Disney Co. is a positive move in the right direction, and we would encourage other entertainment companies to also take a careful look at the consequences of smoking in entertainment products and follow Congressman Markey's call to take responsible actions -- such as showing effective anti-smoking public-service announcements to ensure better public health and save lives," she said.

The independent Weinstein Co. already is using PSAs produced by American Legacy ahead of its films that depict smoking, Healton said.

Disney's move comes after the MPAA ratings board said in May that it will add smoking as a criterion. The MPAA, however, specifically said "historic or other mitigating context" would be considered. That caveat has caused complaints over the PG rating awarded the new musical "Hairspray" despite a few brief depictions of smoking in the New Line movie, set in the early 1960s.

A Universal executive said that Universal didn't publicize the implementation of its nonsmoking policy because it wanted to prove that it was serious about the move and not just making a public relations statement.

"As a baseline, Universal Pictures presumes that no smoking incidents should appear in any youth-rated film produced by Universal or any wholly owned Universal Studios film label and released in the U.S.," its policy states.

The studio does allow smoking if there is a compelling creative or historical reason, but its policy also states that a film with a smoking incident will contain "a health warning in certain distribution channels. This warning may appear in or on materials or elements such as end credits, DVD content and packaging and marketing materials."

Universal president and CEO Ron Meyer said the studio is committed to reducing the health risk connected with smoking.

"We hope that our decreased portrayals of smoking and smoking paraphernalia in youth-oriented movies will help reduce the incidence of smoking among young people," he said. "If smoking is included in a youth-rated film released by Universal, we will include a health warning in our distribution channels. We feel it is important to use our influence to help stem a serious health problem in the U.S. and around the world. We believe it's possible to do that while respecting filmmakers' creative choices, and we are committed to partnering with them in this effort."
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