is director of the media and the developing child sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania
The Motion Picture Association of America will now consider smoking when it rates movies.
"Depictions that glamorize smoking, or movies that feature pervasive smoking outside of a historic or other mitigating context," may lead to a higher rating by the industry panel that decides whether a film deserves a G, PG, PG-13 or an R. Smoking joins violence, sex, profanity and drug use as a red flag used by raters to judge the age-appropriateness of films.
Why smoking? Why now?
The historic "master settlement" of 1998 required the big tobacco companies, such as R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to states to spend on prevention programs. It also prohibited them from targeting youth with ads, promotions and marketing (including bans on paid-for product placements on TV and in movies).
But researchers tracking the prevalence of smoking in film since 1998 have found that tobacco use has actually gone up 50 percent. Indeed, eight out of every 10 PG-13-rated movies, such as Blades of Glory and The Pursuit of Happyness, contain tobacco use, according to a University of California-San Francisco tracking Web site (www.smokefreemovies.
Do movie portrayals with characters smoking lead young audiences to take up the habit? Research from Dartmouth pediatrician James Sargent, who has been studying this subject for years, seems to indicate that the more children are exposed to movie smokers, the higher the likelihood they'll start smoking as teens.
Are movies using smoking as shorthand for a character trait? For example, is it only the bad guys who smoke? Sargent finds that all kinds of characters whom kids admire smoke, from Drew Barrymore to Leonardo DiCaprio.
We don't know exactly why youth are influenced by media portrayals of smoking. Perhaps movies (and the celebrities who star in them) make smoking seem cool. Kids who want to be like Sean Penn will imitate the way he talks, dresses - and smokes. Another line of thinking is that pervasive smoking makes cigarette use seem normal - something "everybody" does when stressed out or at a party.
Finally, movie portrayals of smoking may actually teach young people how to smoke - how to light up; how to inhale; how to flick the ashes.
After the 1998 master settlement, anti-tobacco advocates were delighted to see fewer teenagers taking up the smoking habit.
Unfortunately, the number of youth who try smoking - and go on to become addicted - remains too high. The American Legacy Foundation estimates that 2,000 American teenagers become regular smokers each day. One third will eventually die from tobacco-related illnesses.
How hard will it be for moviemakers to adjust to the MPAA's new guidelines? Take The Devil Wears Prada as a case study. This PG-13 movie grossed more than $300 million. Despite taking place in the fashion (and smoking) capitals of the world - New York and Paris - there was no smoking at all. And no one missed it.
Some might argue that the industry's new position on smoking in films is tantamount to censorship. I might agree, but since its inception, the ratings system has been giving higher ratings to movies that use profanity, and the public isn't complaining about that. Indeed, I have yet to see research that shows that exposure to curse words is even detrimental to children. Unlike smoking, no one ever died from having a potty mouth.