Health groups want movie characters to put out their cigarettes -- or get an R rating

"Anybody got a match?"

The sultry Lauren Bacall asking Humphrey Bogart for a light in the iconic "To Have and Have Not" is a scene seared in movie lover's hearts. But if a new report on smoking in movies has any effect on the Motion Picture Association of America, no one will have a match in film anymore unless the film bears an R rating.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report, "Smoking in Top Grossing Movies -- United States, 1991-2009," tracking the times smoking showed up in cinema over 19 years. In 2009, theater audiences were exposed to 17 billion smoking impressions. Though it might sound like a lot, that's actually an improvement, according to the report. That year was also the first since the study began that the majority of films did not show smoking.

There has been a growing effort over the past decade from groups such as Smoke Free Movies and SceneSmoking.org, which hosts the annual Hackademy Awards, to pressure Hollywood into cutting back the amount of smoking in films.

Now those groups are getting government support for their cause from US Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) and Joseph Pitts (R-PA) and from a group of health organizations, including Legacy, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization.

The groups have asked movie studios to require an R-rating for any film that depicts smoking, outside of one that requires it for historical legitimacy. (Deep Throat, you're safe.)

Movies have a big impact on whether or not children will smoke, Ursula E. Bauer, a director at the CDC, said in a telephone interview. About 44 percent of youth initiation stems from repeated viewings of smoking in movie theaters. An R-rating on movies would lessen the influence on children.

"We have a problem with youth smoking rates in this country," Bauer said. "It is a tragedy that will not end."

Craig Hoffman, a communications consultant for the Motion Pictures Association of America, said in a statement: "There is broad awareness of smoking as a unique public health concern due to nicotine's highly addictive nature, and no parent wants their child to take up the habit."

The statement implied that there would be no changes to policy, explaining that its rating classification provides the necessary information for a parent to make a decision whether or not their children should see a film. "Our research shows that parents are very clear to us that they--not the industry and certainly not the government--should determine what is appropriate viewing for their kids," the statement said.

Hollywood has had a hard time kicking the habit, but smoking in the movies has gone into decline over the past few years.

Stanton Glantz, one of the authors of the report and director of the Smoke Free Movies project, said some movies that cling to cigarettes help his cause to get rid of smoking. James Cameron's "Avatar" saw Sigorney Weaver's character ask for a cigarette in the opening scene. A public outcry over the uselessness of the scene helped increase awareness about Glantz's cause.

"I sent James Cameron a fruit basket with a thank-you note," Glantz said.

Whether this will trickle down to television remains to be seen, but "Mad Men" fans might have a bit of a hard time adjusting to a show without a smoke dangling from Don Draper's lips.

-- Melissa Bell

August 19, 2010; 2:38 PM ET
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Comments

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I never understood why the so-called "liberal" Hollywood movies have characters smoke SO much over the years.

Posted by: cmecyclist | August 19, 2010 4:49 PM

Not to burst the nostalgia bubble, but both Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart performed skits endorsing Lucky Strike cigarettes on The Jack Benny Show. Benny had a multi-million dollar slush fund to pay Hollywood stars to do such "integrated commercials" and plug their latest studio films. The fund came from American Tobacco, which apparently wanted some daylight between itself and "paid testimonials" for cigarettes then under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

Sigourney Weaver herself has protested that she tried to talk James Cameron into letting her use anything else — even an inhaler — rather than call for a smoke in her very first line in Avatar.

As Jack Benny himself said about American Tobacco, "My sponsor has the privilege of making suggestions. I don't have to take the suggestions. I have the privilege of quitting. But I don't want to abuse the privilege, so...".

The steps the CDC cited today would not only free young audiences from exploitation by tobacco marketers, it would also free actors and other creatives from the kind of "suggestions" that have steered smoking on screen since the late 1920s. Three years after Bogart did his Lucky Strike turn, in 1953, he was dead of throat cancer, leaving Bacall and two children.

That's real life, not a TV show.

Posted by: JonathanPolansky | August 19, 2010 4:52 PM

Once the do gooders rid the world of tobacco how will the State and Federal Governments replace the tax revenue lost? And what will be next or already is on the list? Sodas, snacks, what?

Posted by: bobbo2 | August 19, 2010 8:01 PM

An R rating is a bit overboard, isn't it? We are turning into a bunch of fanatics!

Posted by: DGSPAMMAIL | August 20, 2010 12:17 AM

Hollywood decided this while they were blazing up their roaches.

Posted by: Calabrese99 | August 20, 2010 3:04 AM

No, we're not turning into a bunch of fanatics - we are way past that. We are turning into Britain, the biggest nanny state of them all.
Thanks Oblamer.

Posted by: tponcary | August 20, 2010 8:07 AM

So, seeing someone engage in a perfectly legal activity, smoking, is to be R rated, while watching people get their heads blown off or tortured is PG?! Terrible violence is more acceptable for children to see than someone smoking a cigarette!!??

Please!!

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | August 20, 2010 8:23 AM

The entertainment industry should not receive taxpayer dollars for movies that encourage smoking or any other unhealthy lifestyle.
shuttdlrl

Posted by: shuttdlrl | August 20, 2010 8:36 AM

25% of people smoke. 25% of people in movies should smoke. This is obvious tyranny of the majority over the minority. Smoking is legal.

Posted by: scoogy | August 20, 2010 8:47 AM

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