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As Movie Stars Light Up, the MPAA Lets Parents Down

New study finds that the number of on-screen smoking incidents is on the rise.

The Motion Picture Association of America does not automatically assign R-ratings to movies that depict smoking and tobacco use, but maybe it should. While there is scant evidence that children who watch violent or sexually-charged movies emulate the characters, research strongly suggests that children who watch their favorite actors smoke are more likely to light up. Now, a new study finds that the number of on-screen smoking incidents is on the rise.

“We’ve known for a while that the more you see smoking on screen, the more likely you are to see youth smoking cigarettes in real life,” Michael Tynan of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health told CNN. “There’s a causal relationship between the two.”

Seeing tobacco on screen “is the largest single stimulus [for smoking],” coauthor Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco told The New York Times. “It overpowers good parental role models, it’s more powerful than peer influence or even cigarette advertising.” One 2003 study even found that children of nonsmokers who watch movie smoking are as likely to start smoking as children of smokers. Indeed, prior reports have projected that, if MPAA were to assign R-ratings to movies with smoking scenes, this would decrease cigarette sales at a magnitude matched only by raising the price of a pack of cigarettes by more than a dollar.

MPAA took a step in the right direction in 2007, when it announced that smoking would be factor in all ratings and that it would label certain films with smoking warnings. But, by all indications, MPAA did not make good on its promise. “Of all top-grossing films with smoking released from May 2007 to 2014, 51 percent were youth-rated,” according to Smoke Free Movies, a project of UCSF. “The MPAA has identified no film R-rated for its tobacco content.” As for the smoking label, only 10 youth-rated, top films carried a “smoking” descriptor in its MPAA rating box.

MPAA continues to claim that 75 percent of films with smoking scenes are already R-rated. But independent studies suggest that barely 50 percent are rated R. Meanwhile, MPAA’s website does not mention tobacco or smoking at all.

Chalk it up to loose regulation from MPAA or simply the fact that every wants to watch throwbacks to the golden era of cigarettes and throat cancer—the bottom line is that cigarettes are increasingly popping up in films intended for children. This new study, conducted by trained monitors who counted every tobacco incident in among the 10 top-grossing movies each week, drives that point home. Researchers found that 41 percent of top-grossing movies contained tobacco scenes in 2016. And, while the total number of movies that contain tobacco scenes has declined since 2010, the study reveals that the total number of smoking scenes in movies rated PG-13 has increased by 43 percent.

In response to the study, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement renewing calls for MPAA to crack down on cigarettes in children’s movies. MPAA, however, is unlikely to be moved—the association has historically pushed back against efforts to get cigarettes out of movies. And, while this study emphasizes that individual incidents of onscreen smoking are on the rise, opponents of smoke-free films are likely to seize that one finding that the total number of movies containing smoking scenes has declined by half. Even so, Glantz stresses that half is not enough.

“Keeping smoking onscreen is like putting arsenic in the popcorn,” Glantz told The New York Times. His study “shows they’ve taken half of the arsenic out…Now they need to take the rest out.”