Motion Picture Association of America

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is the trade group that protects the business interests of the six major US film studios: Comcast (Universal), Disney, Fox, Sony, Time Warner (Warner Bros.) and Viacom (Paramount).

The MPAA manages the US film rating system through its Classification and Rating Administration. The MPAA and its ratings partner, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), can implement a solution to smoking in youth-rated movies within the existing ratings system. The decision will be made by the MPAA's board of directors, who represent the major studios, with NATO's concurrence.

The major studios have known since at least 2003 that exposure to on-screen smoking is a physical health hazard for young audiences, but they have still not taken substantive action. Instead, the MPAA has been limited to public relations tactics.

Before 2007 | The MPAA claims smoking by characters under 18 (such as high school students) is a factor in film ratings.

In practice | Of 75 top-grossing films showing youths smoking 2002-2014, half were rated PG or PG-13 and half were rated R for other reasons. Only one film mentions 'smoking' in its rating descriptor. Details

May 2007 | After consulting with the Harvard School of Public Health in 2006, the MPAA announces that all smoking will now be a factor in ratings.

In practice | Of all top-grossing films with smoking released from May 2007 to 2014, 51 percent were youth-rated (PG or PG-13). The MPAA has identified no film R-rated for its tobacco content.

The MPAA's press release also said it might label films with smoking to ensure 'specific information is front and center for parents as they make decisions for their kids.'

In practice | From May 2007 to 2014, only one in eight youth-rated, top-grossing US movies with smoking carried a 'smoking' descriptor in its rating box. In all, 90 percent of tobacco impressions delivered to US moviegoers were delivered by films not even labeled, let alone R-rated, for smoking. Details

2009 | The MPAA interrupts North Carolina State Senate debate on landmark smokefree workplace legislation to demand a last-minute loophole for smoking in film productions. 'The motion picture industry worries the bill would prevent actors from smoking on screen,' reported the Associated Press.

News outlets reported, erroneously, that New York already exempted film productions from clean indoor air measures. California provides for an exemption, but producers choose to use non-tobacco products, which do not need one only Massachusetts exempts film sets, but only if local authorities approve. Florida explicitly rejected such an exemption in 2002. New York City exempts live theatrical productions, but only with a state-granted waiver. Currently, the only smoking waiver in NYC is for a Philip Morris product testing lab.

The bill signed into North Carolina law on 19 May 2009, exempts tobacco smoking by performers on a 'motion picture, television, theater or other live production set.'

2007-2011 | The MPAA repeatedly claims that about 75 percent of films with smoking are already R-rated.

In practice | From 2002 to 2014, 33 percent of all top-grossing US films were R-rated. Of the films with smoking, 45 percent were R-rated.

If the MPAA based its claim on all the films that it rates, for a fee, rather than the films actually seen on theater screens, its sample is strongly biased toward R-rated films and away from the films released by MPAA member companies.

From May 2007 to 2014, the MPAA rated about 3,200 films, of which only 1,100 (34%) were released nationally. Sixty percent of all the films the MPAA reviewed were R-rated. Only 35 percent of those films released nationally were R-rated. Details

How MPAA claims were received | Months before the MPAA's 2007 announcement, its own consultant, Harvard School of Public Health, cautioned that merely labeling films with tobacco

would be the equivalent of the tobacco industry cynically putting smoking warnings on cigarette packages.

After the announcement, senior US Senators warned that

the MPAA’s adoption of a highly subjective policy is not enough to curb the influence of smoking in the movies on the health of children.

Leading US health and medical groups also criticized the MPAA's announcement:

WARNING: Watching movies with smoking poses a risk to your childrens' health...The decision by the MPAA to 'consider smoking as a factor' when rating movies is inadequate. Smoking in movies needs to be rated 'R' now.

State Attorneys General address the studios directly | In September 2007, Vermont's Attorney General, William Sorrell, leader of state AGs engaged with the film and tobacco industries on smoking issues, declined a meeting with the MPAA, citing its failure to substantiate its rating announcement:

We had hoped that the MPAA and its member studios would follow the Harvard School of Public Health recommendation [solicited by the MPAA] that depictions of tobacco smoking be eliminated from films accessible to children and youth.

The state Attorneys General suspended contact with the MPAA in 2007 and have instead addressed the major studios and independents directly. View letters

Where the MPAA stands now | The MPAA does not mention 'tobacco' or 'smoking' in its official Classification and Ratings Rules. Its web site no longer carries any information about its May 2007 announcement about the ratings treatment of smoking. Web searches find no MPAA public statement about the issue of on-screen smoking since 2012, the year the US Surgeon General concluded that exposure to on-screen smoking causes young people to start smoking.

Film data driven by Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, a project of Breathe California