Smoke in MPAA's eyes: ratings criteria affected

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Filmmakers now might get an R rating as a thank you for smoking.

The MPAA said Thursday that its rating board will consider film depictions of smoking among the criteria for assigning movie ratings. Anti-tobacco activists have been pressing for an automatic R rating for films with smoking scenes, but MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman rejected the proposal for a more nuanced approach.

"The MPAA film rating system has existed for nearly 40 years as an educational tool for parents to assist them in making decisions about what movies are appropriate for their children," Glickman said. "It is a system that is designed to evolve alongside modern parental concerns."

In line with that evolution, the MPAA ratings board "will now consider smoking as a factor among many other factors, including violence, sexual situations and language, in the rating of films," he said.

"Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society," Glickman said. "There is broad awareness of smoking as a unique public health concern due to nicotine's highly addictive nature, and no parent wants their child to take up the habit. The appropriate response of the rating system is to give more information to parents on this issue."

Glickman described the move as an extension of the MPAA's practice of factoring underage smoking into the rating of films. The ratings board will ask three questions, he said:

  Is the smoking pervasive?

  Does the film glamorize smoking?

  Is there a historic or other mitigating context?

Also, when a film's rating is affected by the depiction of smoking, the rating will include such phrases as "glamorized smoking" or "pervasive smoking."

In a related announcement, the MPAA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers said they were joining Hollywood Unfiltered, a smoking-awareness health initiative aimed at educating members of the industry about the potential harm from onscreen glamorizing of smoking. The project is an initiative of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to education, health and social issues.

"Some have called for a mandatory R rating on all films that contain any smoking," Glickman said. "We do not believe such a step would further the specific goal of providing information to parents on this issue. Unfortunately, the debate on this extreme proposal has become heavily politicized, and many inaccurate statements have been made. While those pushing this proposal are no doubt well-intentioned, it is important that there is an accurate understanding of the declining prevalence of smoking in non-R-rated films."

From July 2004-July 2006, the percentage of films that included "even a fleeting glimpse of smoking" dropped from 60% to 52%, and 75% of those fetched an R rating for other factors, he said.

The DGA was among several organizations issuing statements of support for the MPAA moves.

"The DGA supports the MPAA's announced enhancements to the ratings system and applauds their effort to provide parents with increased information on the depiction of smoking in movies," the guild said. "We appreciate that they, like us, are working to find the delicate balance between addressing important health concerns and safeguarding free expression."

SAG also gave a statement of support.

"As advocates for both creative rights and child-protection legislation, we believe this is a reasonable approach to deal with a serious health issue," SAG deputy national executive director Pamm Fair said.

American Cancer Society CEO John Seffrin said he was pleased by the MPAA's "substantive effort to eliminate tobacco use as a cause of death and disability."

Seffrin cited "evidence that children and youth are particularly vulnerable to the images of tobacco use on movie screens."

But not all the reaction was rosy.

American Legacy Foundation said the new MPAA ratings policy "falls short and fails to implement the meaningful recommendations set forth by numerous organizations." Washington-based ALF states its mission as being "dedicated to a world where young people reject tobacco and anyone can quit."

Hollywood has been under increasing pressure to take steps to ease the purported effect of entertainment content in several areas, from smoking to child obesity. Next week on Capitol Hill, the Senate Commerce Committee begins its examination of the effect violent content has on children.

Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is expected to introduce legislation giving the FCC the power to regulate such content -- much as it does indecent content on television. In April, the FCC approved a report on TV violence that asked lawmakers for the requisite enforcement powers.

A Senate-FCC industry task force has been convened to identify ways of forcing content producers to encourage children to eat healthy foods.

Meanwhile, the MPAA's announcement on smoking comes the day after Jack Valenti, longtime head of the MPAA and the architect of its movie-ratings system, was buried in Arlington Cemetery. In responding to any suggestions that the MPAA ratings were less than perfect, Valenti would regularly observe that the ratings could be amended but should never be discarded.

"(P)arents are very clear to us that they -- not the industry and certainly not the government -- should determine what is appropriate viewing for their kids," Glickman said Thursday. "What they want is information, and that is the action we are now taking."

Brooks Boliek in Washington contributed to this report.
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