In an era when cinema attendance is in continual decline, the United States Surgeon General’s proposal that all movies depicting smoking should be rated R is a particular form of silliness.

The Surgeon General estimates that giving an R rating to movies with smoking would reduce the number of young smokers in the US by nearly 18% and prevent one million deaths from smoking among children alive today.

But these statements are based on questionable assumptions and calculations.

Beyond the cinema

Advocates for R ratings argue two effects. R-rating would dramatically reduce the number of young people who would be exposed to smoking scenes in movies. And it would act as a major disincentive to movie producers to include smoking scenes because R rated movies attract smaller audiences. These producers would thus self-censor smoking scenes after doing the box office maths.

But studies purporting to demonstrate the power of smoking scenes to cause smoking already include R-rating movies in their smoking scene exposure assessments. In this 2007 paper, for example, 40% of the films were R-rated. The same research team has also shown that 81% of US adolescents are allowed to watch R-rated movies.

If youth who allegedly start smoking because of exposure to smoking in movies are already watching lots of R-rated movies, how would an R-rating reduce such exposure?

Moving movies with smoking to R-rating would put the onus on parents to regulate their children’s viewing. Few would disagree with that. But why would parents regulate their children’s viewing more because of concern about smoking than they do now because of concerns about exposure to strong violence and explicit sex in R-rated movies?

If the R-rating solution is designed to prevent youth seeing smoking, it may prevent them seeing it in cinemas, but it will not prevent them seeing the newly rated R movies elsewhere with consummate ease, increasingly so as download and i-View markets rapidly expand. It surely cannot be long until proponents of R-rating realise they will need to call for total movie censorship of smoking. If they’re comfortable with that, let them be open about it.

But I, for one, am not. And because the call for this proposal has received no serious consideration outside of the US and India (a nation with a strong history of censorship), I’m certainly not alone.

Art imitating life

As I wrote before in the journal PLOS Medicine, I’m concerned that public health advocates think it’s reasonable for the state to regulate cultural products such as movies, books, art and theatre to further their cause.

Film isn’t just about the communication of public health messages to the masses. And children’s moral development and health decision-making is far complex than a response to wholesome role models.

Filmmakers depict all sorts of antisocial, unhealthy and even dangerous realities that we might expect in society. That doesn’t mean the behaviour is desirable or that the filmmaker is endorsing the behaviour.

In nations such as Australia which ban all forms of tobacco advertising, any evidence of paid tobacco product placement in movie would be a breach of the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act 1992. There would be many inside the local film industry who would be appalled if tobacco companies were paying illegally for such scenes to occur.

There have been no whistleblowers exposing this here, so any smoking scenes are highly likely to be script and directional judgements.

Smoking prevalence in Australian children is at an all-time low, as it is in the United States. This has been achieved by the sustained combination of policies and campaigns mostly directed at adults, but to which kids are also exposed. So, while smoking in movies has been rising, smoking in kids has been falling.

There are many overtly and subtly negative treatments of smoking in movies and television that are probably contributing to the decay of smoking’s former status. This compilation from the globally massively popular Friends TV series is illustrative.

If R-rating advocates had their way, no adolescent should ever be exposed to such programs.

Written by Simon Chapman. Republished with permission of The Conversation.