In their latest anti-tobacco initiative, the attorneys general of 24 states have turned their attention to Hollywood.The same group that has been gnawing at the ankles of Big Tobacco for years sent a letter last week to Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Jack Valenti. It called upon the film industry to reduce the amount of smoking in movies in order to prevent teens from taking up the habit. A pediatrician who led a recent study cited in the letter even urged an automatic R rating for smoke-filled films. Please. This muddled argument does not advance the cause of health. It brazenly intrudes on filmmakers’ rights to depict situations in which, for reasons of period or character authenticity, people smoke. Films like “Casablanca” or “The Best Years of Their Lives” would hardly have been the same films without smoking. Even films about World War II made today would be hard-pressed to avoid it. If the MPAA were to factor smoking into its ratings, what about other societal issues like the depiction of women or the use of racial stereotypes? Smoking kills. We agree that it should be legislated and limited to some extent. It isn’t 1948; it’s 2003 and the public health toll is too great to roll back those restrictions. But the arts are another matter. Evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between young viewers and what is on screen is not compelling. The industry has never achieved a consensus on keeping smoking out of films, despite initiatives by industry leaders such as Joe Roth. There is a good reason for that. Trying to dictate content crosses a dangerous line.
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