Tobacco-addicted movie characters across the land can wheeze a sigh of relief. A U.S. District Court has ruled that the MPAA is within its free speech rights to grant PG-13, PG, and even G ratings to movies containing tobacco use. The ruling, delivered by Judge Richard Seeborg, comes in a response to a $20 million lawsuit filed by a disgruntled parent against the MPAA and the National Association Of Theatre Owners. Timothy Forsyth was appalled when he took his sons, 11 and 12, to a PG-13 movie only to find it contained “tobacco imagery.” He felt that this should qualify the film for a mandatory R. The court, however, did not agree. The MPAA says it is “pleased” with the ruling, though tobacco use will remain a factor in determining a movie’s rating.
Forsyth’s argument, although unsuccessful, has some data to back it up. Both the Surgeon General and the Centers For Disease Control suggest that movies with tobacco use could be recruiting young smokers by the millions. Anti-tobacco activists have long maintained that movies that depict tobacco use in a glamorous way without clearly showing the consequences could influence young people to smoke. Take, for instance, this scene from the PG-rated Grease, a staple of slumber parties for nearly 40 years. Nary a mention of emphysema here as Danny Zuko lights up.
Others maintain that upping a movie’s rating simply because of tobacco use amounts to a de facto form of censorship. In his 2010 book, Role Models, John Waters wrote that he was against giving automatic R ratings to movies with smoking, but “not because [I] believe in smoking. It does kill you!” On the other hand, he maintained, “people do smoke, and why should that give your film a restricted rating?” Apparently, the courts see it Waters’ way. The Helen Lovejoys of the world might view it differently.