Rated R For Smoking

Even when he’s making his final stand against a battalion of enemy robot combatants, Hound never stops chomping on his cigar.

In Transformers: Age of Extinction, Hound’s a hardened soldier, so the stogie’s a shopworn cliche borne of bad World War II movies. But he’s also a robot in a kid’s movie. So the cigar’s not only puzzling but dangerous.

It may seem like nobody smokes in movies anymore, but a new study released by the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) says otherwise. It found that smoking in PG-13 rated movies increased by 43 percent in 2016 compared to 2010, and the average number of tobacco incidents per movie has reached near-historic highs.

That’s bad news, because when kids see smoking in movies, it’s like handing them a butt and a lit match.

“The more smoking kids see on screen, the more likely they are to smoke,” says Stanton Glantz, study co-author and professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control, Research, and Education. “Putting smoking on screen is introducing a toxin to the environment.”

Large-scale population and long-term studies exploring risk factors have linked fictional smoking to real cigarette use. For smokers, images of smoking stimulate the same pleasure centers that actual smoking does. In 2012, the U.S. Surgeon General finally announced there is a relationship between kids seeing smoking in movies and eventually lighting up themselves.

“That [represents] the same level of certainty as we had when the surgeon general said that smoking causes lung cancer,” Glantz says.

Glantz has worked with the CDC for years to track smoking in movies. He’s surprised there’s more smoking in movies aimed at teens and kids, especially since -2005 to 2010 saw a significant dip in movie smoking. In fact, had the trend from those years continued, all movies with youth ratings would have been tobacco free by 2015. Now the rates are higher than they were before.

According to Glantz, there’s an easy way to remove tobacco from youth targeted movies: make it adult content. Treat smoking like cursing or nudity and give any movie that shows it an R rating. This would make major movie studios far more selective, and could have an immense human toll in the long run.

“The CDC has said that if we had an R rating for smoking to get it out of the movies that are meant for kids, that simple, essentially cost-free action would prevent the deaths of a million kids who are alive today,” Glantz says.

It seems worth it when considering the meaninglessness of some of these tobacco incidents. They’re mostly gratuitous, ranging from a simple cigarette lighting in Suicide Squad to the 60-plus smoking incidents in Rango, the animated tale of a rambling chameleon. And even if you write off the cigar in Hound’s mouth as a hack cliche (which it is), deeming it restricted wouldn’t doom the Transformers franchise. It just forces filmmakers to play a different hand.

“If we had a modern rating system where smoking generated an R rating, Transformers wouldn’t be rated R,” Glantz says. “The producers would just leave the cigar out.”

But a modernization of movie ratings won’t happen overnight. Hollywood has a long history with the tobacco industry dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Tobacco companies paid filmmakers to feature smoking in movies. They realized early on what a tremendous influence films had on the public. It was better than conventional advertising. It’s also part of the reason people today think every single person alive smoked cigarettes back then.

“The level of cigarette consumption in the 1930s was lower than it is today,” Glantz says. “But most people think everyone was smoking back then because there was so much in the movies.”

Mid-1990s brand placement laws levied by a number of state attorneys general cracked down on American-made cigarettes being smoked in movies. But that hasn’t erased for decades of strong relationships between movie makers and the tobacco industry. Smoking is cool, and movies helped make it that way.

Changing the rating system would be simple, though. It’s a wonder it wasn’t done years ago. In this sense, Glantz compares the Motion Picture Association of America—the lobbying firm for the six major movie studios headed by former Senator Chris Dodd—to global warming deniers. Sometimes they deny the evidence, other times they ignore it altogether.

Critics of the change also cite artistic integrity, as if the studios don’t have complete control about what their artists create to maximize ticket sales. Major motion pictures are products designed to make money, which gives the studios autonomy over any artistic license they don’t deem profitable.

Still, demanding a change in ratings inevitably sounds like censorship. But Glantz says it’s necessary to address a major public health risk, and maintains that he doesn’t want smoking completely eliminated from movies.

“If the artist or studio thinks that smoking on screen is crucial for the artistic statement the movie is making, they get to keep it,” Glantz says. “They should just get an R rating.”