Liverpool proposes ‘18' rating on films with smoking

by Emily Goodell | 8/20/09 10:00pm

The City Council in Liverpool, England has introduced legislation to prevent individuals under 18 from attending, renting or buying films featuring tobacco use based in part on research conducted by physicians at Dartmouth Medical School.

The legislation was proposed because of research showing that tobacco use in movies has "a strong effect in encouraging young people to smoke," according to the Executive Case Summary provided by the Liverpool City Council on its web site. To support the legislation, the Case Summary cites a 2008 report commissioned by the U.S. National Cancer Institute about media effects on smoking. DMS pediatrician Jim Sargent co-authored the chapter of the report that discussed the effects of smoking in movies. The report finds that one of the causes of teen smoking is exposure to smoking in movies, Sargent said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

"We have all this evidence supporting the notion that the more smoking kids see in entertainment, the more likely they are to smoke," he said. "We know it's a really addictive substance, and a lot of kids who start smoking within a couple of months are hooked...so given all those facts about it and the fact that it causes a terrible disease, it just makes total sense to me now that this should be rated. It's every bit as important as profanity and sex and violence, the other things that moves are typically rated for, so why wouldn't we rate movies for smoking as well?"

The legislation would give the films an "18" rating within the city of Liverpool, which would restrict anyone under the age of 18 from accessing the film. Ratings of films in Britain are determined by the British Board of Film Classification, but municipalities can overrule the British Board if they see fit.

The only way that a film could show smoking without acquiring the rating would be if it also depicted the dangers of smoking, or if the character smoking is a historical figure who actually smoked. The new rating would have no effect on films that came out before the legislation is enacted.

Among other things, the U.S. National Cancer Institute report drew on research Sargent pioneered in 1997, along with his colleagues Madeline Dalton, Todd Heatherton and Michael Beach.

"We were actually shocked by how strong the relationship was [between seeing smoking in movies and tobacco use]," Sargent said. "We controlled for all the things that we knew of that were potential causes of adolescent smoking, and after controlling for them, there was still a moderately strong relationship."

Further studies conducted by Sargent and his team have shown that neither the type of character that is smoking nor the location of the viewers has a significant effect on the relationship, according to a College press release.

"It doesn't really matter if you're looking at American kids or German kids or Scottish kids, they're all highly exposed to movies kids like to watch a lot of movies and the more smoking they've seen in them, the more likely they are to have started smoking," Sargent said.

Rating movies according to their smoking content makes more sense scientifically than does rating based off other criteria, such as the use of profanity and sexuality, he added.

"I think violence has a reasonable amount of evidence behind it, but of all the other things that get rated in movies, I think that smoking probably has the best evidence base for restriction," Sargent said.

The Liverpool ordinance could help to decrease teen smoking, Sargent said, if it indeed decreases exposure of adolescents to smoking in movies. For it to have a significant effect, however, the measure would have to be implemented in more places, so it would be widespread enough to affect movie producers.

"Basically, if movies incorporated this in to their policies, what would happen is because movies are a business, and they want an adolescent audience, it would decrease the amount of smoking in the movies," Sargent said. "They'd make the business decision to take the smoking out of movies that were aimed at kids. So this is the beginning of that kind of a process."

Sargent has been an advocate of having movies with smoking rated "R" in the United States, and is continuing to do research about the effects of movie smoking on adolescents. He is currently preparing to conduct a survey which gathers information about the movie-watching habits and tobacco use of 15,000 adolescents in collaboration with researchers from six European countries, he said.

When Sargent first considered giving movies showing smoking an "R" or "18" rating, the idea seemed "ludicrous" to him, he said. But after considering the issue more closely, Sargent said he now is convinced the idea is rational.