MPAA Chairman Defends Rating Guidance on Smoking in Movies

MPAA Chief Charles Rivkin
Joy Asico/Asico Photo

WASHINGTON — MPAA chairman Charles Rivkin defended the way that the voluntary movie ratings system informs parents about smoking in movies, as a group of senators called for the industry to take greater action to limit tobacco use on screen.

He also pushed back on the idea of giving an R rating to just about any movie that depicts smoking.

“While the system strongly weighs the presence of any tobacco-related imagery, it is not designed to impose societal change or censor filmmakers,” Rivkin wrote in a letter to Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and six other senators. “Our nation’s courts have repeatedly affirmed the importance of the First Amendment in protecting the creative process, and the rating system’s role in providing information for families without exerting editorial decisions. This includes a 2016 ruling rejecting a case that sought to require an R rating for all but very limited depictions of tobacco use.”

Earlier this month, Markey and the other senators wrote a letter to Rivkin, arguing that “MPAA has yet to take meaningful action to discourage tobacco imagery in films or effectively warn viewers and parents of tobacco’s presence in a movie.”

They added, “Our nation’s dramatic decline in youth tobacco use is a tremendous achievement, but on-screen depictions remain a threat to this progress and threaten to re-normalize tobacco use in our society. We cannot afford to lose any ground in this area.”

Among other things, they noted that the Surgeon General had suggested the assignment of an R rating to movies that depict smoking in a “non-historical manner.” But they said from 2007 to 2017, the MPAA’s only action was “to add small-print ‘smoking’ labels to 11% of all top-grossing youth-rated films with smoking.”

In his letter on Friday, Rivkin wrote that the rating board does not automatically assign an R rating to movies with a single instance of smoking, but weighs a number of factors including “context, historical mores, frequency and glamorization.”

“We have also enhanced the amount of information we provide to parents with tobacco-specific film descriptors. Where the movie’s rating is affected by the depiction of smoking, the rating descriptor explains the role of smoking in the assigned rating, through phrases such as ‘Rated R for language and smoking throughout’ or ‘Rated PG for brief images of smoking and violence.’ This is not ‘small-print’ but rather is displayed side-by-side with the rating to give parents information as to the elements that impacted the rating.”

He also noted that the studios have attached anti-smoking public service announcements to youth-related DVDs that depict incidents of smoking.

Rivkin said the 50-year-old rating system also does not try to determine film content or prescribe social policy, but reflects “the current values of the majority of American parents.”