Health Organizations Demand R-Rating for Movies that Include Smoking

CDC: Up to 1 million deaths from smoking among children alive today could be prevented

teenagers watch a movie

Leading US health organizations have joined together to demand that movies be rated R if they show actors smoking or using other forms of tobacco. In a letter to film industry leaders, 17 public health and medical groups set a deadline of June 1, 2018 to end smoking in movies targeted to kids, especially movies rated PG-13. The letter is in response to a report by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which shows that children who see smoking in movies are more likely to become smokers themselves.

“Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of cancer mortality, responsible for approximately 30% of all cancer deaths in America,” said Gary Reedy, CEO of the American Cancer Society. “Most smokers are enticed into nicotine addiction as children, and the American film industry must take assertive action now to ensure that our kids are not lured into using this uniquely lethal product by depictions of smoking in major motion pictures.”

The CDC expects that giving an R rating to future movies with smoking would reduce the number of teen smokers by nearly 1 in 5 (18%), preventing up to 1 million deaths from smoking among children alive today.

A focus on PG-13 movies

In the July 7, 2017 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC calls out smoking in PG-13 films as a particular public health concern. Since 2010, the number of tobacco incidents, or how often movies show tobacco use, has increased by 43% in PG-13 movies. The CDC has additional information covering the period from 2002 to 2010 on its website.

  • Almost half (46%) of top-grossing movies in the United States were rated PG-13.
  • 6 of every 10 PG-13 movies (58%) showed smoking or other tobacco use.
  • A greater percentage of G, PG, and PG-13 movies were smoke-free, but those that did show any tobacco use had more incidents than ever before.
  • Even though the Motion Picture Association of America created a smoking label to include with its other ratings, almost 9 out of 10 (89%) top-grossing youth-rated movies did not carry this label.

Studies have been reporting the risks to children from watching smoking in movies since 2003. Under pressure from health groups and state attorneys general, some major studios reduced smoking in youth-rated films between 2005 and 2010, but then progress stalled.

The updated R-rating guidelines, as described in the letter, would apply to all movies with smoking except those that “exclusively portray actual people who used tobacco (as in documentaries or biographical dramas) or that depict the serious health consequences of tobacco use.”

The letter was sent to the Motion Picture Association of America, Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox, Sony, Time Warner, Viacom; independents A24, Broad Green, Lionsgate, Open Rad, STX, The Weinstein Company; exhibitors National Association of Theatre Owners, AMC, Carmike, Cinemark, Marcus, Reading Int’l, Regal; retailers Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Best Buy, CinemaNow, Google, Hulu, Netflix, Redbox, Target, Verizon, Vudu and Walmart.

It was signed by the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Public Health Association, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, Breathe California Sacramento Region, the Los Angeles County Health Agency, Smokefree Movies, Trinity Health, and Truth Initiative.

Keeping kids tobacco free

Almost all tobacco use begins during youth and young adulthood. The CDC says if young people can remain free of tobacco until age 18, most will never start smoking. Despite the impact of movies, parents can be the most important influence in their kids’ decision about whether to smoke. These tips from the CDC can help parents keep their kids tobacco-free:

  • Talk with your children about the risks of tobacco use. If loved ones have or died from tobacco-related illnesses, let your kids know. Let them know that using tobacco strains the heart, damages the lungs, and can cause a lot of other health problems, including cancer. Also mention what it can do to the way a person looks and smells: smoking makes hair and clothes stink, causes bad breath, and stains teeth and fingernails. Spit and smokeless tobacco can cause bad breath, stained teeth, tooth decay, tooth loss, and bone loss in the jaw.
  • Start talking about tobacco use when your children are 5 or 6 years old and continue through their high school years. Many kids start using tobacco by age 11. And many are addicted by age 14.
  • Know if your kids’ friends use tobacco. Talk about ways to say “no” to tobacco.
  • Talk to your kids about the false glamorization of tobacco in the movies.

The children of parents who smoke are much more likely to smoke themselves. But even if you use tobacco, you can still influence your kids’ decisions. You might even have more power, because you’ve been there. Your best move, of course, is to quit. Meanwhile, don’t use tobacco around your children, don’t offer it to them, and don’t leave it where they can easily get it.

If you smoke or use other tobacco and want to quit, read our guide to quitting tobacco or call us any time at 1-800-227-2345. We’re here to help.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Tobacco Use in Top-Grossing Movies -- United States, 2010-2016. Published in the July 7, 2017 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. First author Michael A. Tynan, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.


American Cancer Society news stories are copyrighted material and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.