WASHINGTON — Retiring Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Jack Valenti, and by extension, the rest of Hollywood, came under attack Tuesday for failing to help stamp out cigarette smoking in films.
“I think the ball is in your court, Mr. Valenti,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) scolded. “I just hope you will seize it.”
The comments came during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing called to explore the relationship between teens seeing people smoke on the big screen and deciding to light up themselves. A recent study conducted by Dr. Madeline Dalton of Dartmouth Medical School found that smoking in movies entices young people to start.
Valenti spent most of his testimony discussing the ways he has helped facilitate recent meetings between anti-smoking activists and the entertainment industry, but he stopped short of recommending any proposals to filmmakers, which he argued could infringe on their creative license.
Personally, Valenti said he deplores smoking, calling it “a nasty, smelly, vicious kind of habit.” But he rejected any effort to alter the movie ratings system to warn parents when a film shows one or more characters smoking.
If the MPAA granted the anti-smoking groups’ wishes, that would only encourage other interest groups to come forward with a litany of pet causes the ratings should reflect, he said.
“There are so many legalities,” Valenti asserted. “Do we have a responsibility for drunk driving, for alcohol abuse, for murder? …There are so many things that kill people. We can’t bear all of this responsibility.”
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who represents the heart of tobacco country, was the only pol to come to showbiz’ defense.
“I don’t need the federal government to tell me how to raise my children,” he said.
Anti-smoking activists have also asked the movie industry to run anti-smoking public service announcements as trailers before films containing smoking scenes. Valenti said that decision is not up to the studios, but instead must be made by the National Assn. of Theater Owners. The anti-smoking groups have already met with NATO to pitch the anti-smoking trailer idea, a meeting Valenti facilitated.
Sen. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.) urged Valenti to get directly involved and help sell the anti-smoking trailers to theater owners before he retires.
“This will be another jewel you can put in your crown along with many others,” Nelson said.
The Directors Guild of America offered the solons a little bit of hope on the issue.
The DGA has devoted the June/July edition of its magazine to the subject of smoking in movies, and LeVar Burton, co-chair of the DGA’s social responsibility task force, testified that he would personally be more than happy to donate his time to working on the anti-smoking trailers.
Over the past year, the guild’s task force has considered the depiction of smoking in films and TV and its impact on young people and has come up with a series of recommendations adopted by the DGA National Board of Directors last November.
Burton stressed that while the guild is firm in its belief that showing a character smoking is a decision best left up to the director, it discourages “gratuitous” onscreen smoking, and encourages directors to recognize the social responsibility they hold in making creative decisions, including how they depict characters who smoke.
The DGA has also agreed to take on a leadership role in the industry by creating an outreach campaign for its members designed to encourage an awareness of their social responsibility in the depiction of smoking in movies.
The commitment earned kudos from the pols involved.
“Good. That’s the kind of thing we were looking for this hearing to produce,” said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who chaired the hearing.