Harvard Tobacco Project

By the early 1990s, anti-tobacco activists were pressuring Hollywood to sharply reduce the depiction of smoking in feature films. Advocates were beginning to demand that any movie depicting tobacco smoking (with certain rare exceptions) be classified with an R-rating, thereby prohibiting access to the film in movie theaters by young people under the age of 17. The movie industry strongly resisted imposition of an R-rating for smoking as draconian and a violation of the creative freedom of filmmakers.

The incidence of smoking in films reached a peak in 1998, with 88% of the top-50 box office movies depicting tobacco use. The following year, CHC staff decided to test what might be accomplished through a cooperative “inside” approach to filmmakers that would complement the tactics of the advocates, which tended to be less collaborative and more accusatory. CHC would position the issue differently: instead of blaming movie makers for causing smoking-related deaths, and thereby provoking their resistance, CHC would highlight the public health community’s broad-based efforts to curb smoking among young people, and argue that the seductive imagery of smoking in movies was undercutting the impact of those efforts. That is, we needed the Hollywood community at the table as part of the solution.

In 1999, with a grant from the Markle Foundation, CHC launched the Harvard Tobacco Project, directed by Susan Moses, CHC’s deputy director. Drawing on relationships already in place, CHC set out to convene leaders in the entertainment industry to focus their attention on the problem.

At CHC’s request, Barry Diller, then chairman/CEO of USA Networks, Inc. and a member of CHC’s advisory board, convened the heads of the major feature film studios and television networks over breakfast on July 13, 1999, to address how Hollywood could help curb the teen smoking epidemic. The meeting featured presentations by Susan Moses, director of the Project, and Lindsay Doran, former president of United Artists. Ms. Moses presented the results of national surveys on the positive attitudes and beliefs of young people regarding tobacco use along with research on the high prevalence of smoking depicted in feature films and how smoking is not only glamorized, but normalized. Ms. Doran shared her own successful experience in removing gratuitous smoking from films in development by framing the issue at a creative level — arguing, for instance, that relying on smoking as a device is often trite, and challenging writers to think of alternative ways to create the same feeling in a character or mood in a scene.

As an outcome of the Diller meeting, Ms. Moses and Ms. Doran were invited by studio executives to make follow-up presentations on the individual studio lots. One thing studio executives were surprised to learn was how often smoking appears in the actual script itself — at a time in the film production process when it could be easily removed. TIME magazine reported on the studio meetings, illuminating the challenges involved:

When Doran and Moses met with executives from Imagine Pictures, says Doran, “they said, ‘Smoking is not in any of our scripts.’ But then they called the next day and said, ‘We looked, and it’s everywhere.'” Karen Kehela, co-chairman of Imagine, recalls trying to take smoking out of one script after the meeting, “but the actor insisted on smoking,” she says. In fact, many movie stars can’t leave their cigarettes in the dressing room. “Actors who smoke look for any reason to incorporate it into their characters,” [Rob] Reiner says. “You have directors who don’t care about the social implications or are kowtowing to the actors.” Castle Rock Entertainment [co-founded by Reiner] … now has a policy of discouraging tobacco use. Any actor, director or screenwriter who wants to depict it must first meet with Reiner. “They have to make a really good case,” he says. “Movies are basically advertising cigarettes to kids.”

Meanwhile, the advocacy groups continued to target the studios, and Congressional hearings were held on the controversy, but the issue did not come to a head until 2006, when Dan Glickman, a former U.S. Congressman and Secretary of Agriculture, was appointed chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). His predecessor at MPAA, Jack Valenti, was a member of CHC’s advisory board, and CHC staff had maintained contact with MPAA over the years.

When Dan Glickman arrived on the scene, he faced the prospect of a lawsuit from scores of state attorneys general who had joined the fight against smoking in movies. The CHC arranged for Mr. Glickman to meet at the Harvard School of Public Health with then Dean Barry Bloom. Subsequently, Mr. Glickman sent a letter to the state attorneys general dated October 5, 2006, stating:

MPAA has assumed the lead role on behalf of the member companies to determine how we can best address the issue of tobacco in motion pictures and its potential impact on youth and smoking. To that end, we are collaborating with the renowned Harvard School of Public Health, whose experts are joining us in pursuit of this goal. Harvard has worked with our member companies in the past on this issue and their experts are now formulating recommendations for consideration…My objective is to gain consensus among the member companies of MPAA on Harvard’s pending recommendations and then begin implementation.

The next step was to arrange a closed-door summit meeting of senior studio executives to present research findings and offer recommendations. The summit was held on February 23, 2007 with presentations by then Dean Bloom, Professor Jonathan Samet, then of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Dr. Jay Winsten, CHC’s director.

On May 10, 2007, the MPAA announced the most far-reaching change in film ratings policy in 40 years:

Now, all smoking will be a consideration in the rating process. Three questions will have particular weight for our rating board when considering smoking in a film: Is the smoking pervasive? Does the film glamorize smoking? And, is there an historic or other mitigating context? Additionally, when a film’s rating is affected by the depiction of smoking, that rating will now include phrases such as “glamorized smoking” or “pervasive smoking.”

Left unstated was an intriguing implication of this policy: If a filmmaker is contractually obligated to deliver a G-rated (General Audiences) film to the marketplace, he or she will need to take into consideration that the inclusion of smoking might result in a more restrictive rating for the film, resulting in a breach of contract. And in fact, a number of major film studios adopted more stringent internal policies to curb smoking in films intended for young audiences.

Advocates continued to hold the studio executives’ feet to the fire on implementation of the new policy, regularly conducting and publicizing content analyses of newly released films to track trends in the incidence of tobacco smoking. Over the next several years, the incidence of smoking in youth-rated films sharply declined. Among movies rated PG or G, 89% (34 of 38) were smoke-free in 2010.

Subsequently, however, the curve reversed direction, suggesting that a stable solution may require an R-rating for films depicting smoking. On the other hand, the growing prominence of home viewing of movies through streaming services (e.g., Netflix) suggests that a movie R-rating, which only controls access to movies in theaters, might have limited impact in today’s media environment.