Smoking in the Movies
- The Surgeon General’s Report concluded that exposure to onscreen smoking in movies causes young people to start smoking.1
- If current rates continue, 5.6 million youth alive today who are projected to die from tobacco related diseases.2
- Giving an R rating to future movies with smoking would be expected to reduce the number of teen smokers by nearly 1 in 5 (18%),2,3 preventing up to 1 million deaths from smoking among children alive today.2
G (General Audience): All ages admitted
PG (Parental Guidance Suggested): Some material may not be suitable for children
PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned): Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13 years
R (Restricted): Under 17 years requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
NC-17 (Adults Only): No one 17 years or under admitted
- From 2002 to 2019:
- 4 out of every 10 top-grossing movies (44%) of top-grossing movies in the United States were rated PG-13.
- 6 of every 10 PG-13 movies (56%) showed smoking or other tobacco use.
- The percentage of youth-rated movies (G, PG, PG-13) that were smokefree increased from 35% to 65%; however, in youth-rated movies that showed any smoking, the average number of tobacco incidents per movie was 63% higher in 2019 [n=34].5
- The Motion Picture Association (MPA), the studios’ organization that assigns ratings, provides a “smoking label” along with the regular rating for some movies that contain smoking. However, almost 9 of every 10 (87%) youth-rated, top-grossing movies with smoking do not carry an MPA “smoking label.”5
- Five major movie companies that belong to MPA have published individual policies addressing tobacco depictions in their movies.5
- Disney (2004)
- AT&T’s Warner Bros. (2005)
- Comcast’s Universal (2007)
- Sony (2012)
- Viacom’s Paramount (2013)
- A “tobacco incident” is one occurrence of smoking or other tobacco use in a movie.
- “Incidents” are a measure of the number of occurrences of smoking or other tobacco use in a movie.
- A “tobacco impression” is one person seeing one incident.
- “Impressions” are a measure of total audience exposure.
- This report’s movie sample comprises all movies that ranked among the top 10 in ticket sales (“top-grossing movies”) in any week of their first-run release to U.S. theaters.
- The percentage of PG-13 movies with tobacco incidents increased from 38% in 2018 to 43% in 2019, substantially above the historical low of 35% in 2016.
- In 2019, the number of tobacco incidents in the average youth-rated movie with tobacco (34 incidents) was 30% lower than in 2018 (48 incidents). The number in the average R-rated movie with tobacco (63 incidents) was nearly 50% above the level in 2018 (42 incidents) and represented a historical high for R-rated movies.
- Nearly one in four movies rated G or PG contained tobacco incidents in 2019 (8 of 35 movies). The total number of tobacco incidents in movies rated PG increased from 2018 to 2019 (from 17 to 108), the highest number in ten years (118 in 2009).
- PG-13 movies included 29% fewer tobacco incidents in 2019 (879) than they did in 2018 (1,241). The total number of incidents in youth-rated movies in 2019 (987) was 24% less than the number in 2002 (1,296).
- R-rated movies included 63% more tobacco incidents in 2019 (2,631) than they did in 2018 (1,610). The number of incidents in R-rated movies in 2019 was 34% more than the number in 2002 (1,968) and represented a historical high
- A significant downward trend occurred in the number of tobacco incidents in youth-rated films between 2005 and 2010, but incidents were essentially flat from 2010 through 2019. Had the average rate of decline in tobacco incidents per year observed between 2005 and 2010 been maintained, tobacco incidents would have been eliminated from all youth-rated films by early 2015.
Figure 1. Tobacco Incidents in Top-Grossing Movies by Motion Picture Association (MPA) Rating, 1991–20195
- The number of tobacco incidents in movies varies by movie company. From 2015 to 2019:6
- Tobacco incidents increased in youth-rated movies from
- independent movie companies with top-grossing movies in 2019
- Tobacco incidents decreased in youth-rated movies from:
- Tobacco incidents increased in youth-rated movies from
Figure 2. In-Theater Tobacco Impressions by Motion Picture Association (MPA) Rating, 2002–20195
- Data showing persistent levels of smoking indicate that individual movie company policies alone are not efficient at minimizing smoking in movies. In 2019, independent movie companies, without published policies, accounted for the majority of youth-rated movies with tobacco and the majority of tobacco incidents in youth-rated movies.
- The 66% increase in tobacco incidents in PG-13 movies and doubling of tobacco incidents in R-rated movies from 2010 to 2019 are of particular public health concern because of the established causal relationship between youth exposure to smoking in movies and smoking initiation.6
- Reducing tobacco incidents that appear in movies would prevent the initiation of tobacco use among young people.1-3,5-7
- Opportunities exist for movie studios to reduce tobacco incidents that appear in youth-rated movies, including rating films with smoking as R.6,7
- Other available interventions include certifying that no payments have been received by the producers and distributors for depicting tobacco use; and ending the onscreen depiction of actual tobacco brands.6,7
- State and local health departments could also work with state agencies that manage movie subsidies to ensure that such subsidies do not go to films that include depictions of tobacco use.6
- An R rating for movies with tobacco use can potentially reduce the number of teen smokers by 18% 2,3, preventing up to 1 million premature smoking deaths among youth alive today.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2012 [accessed 2019 April 22].
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014 [accessed 2019 April 22].
- Sargent JD, Tanski S, Stoolmiller M. Influence of Motion Picture Rating on Adolescent Response to Movie Smoking. Pediatrics 2012: 130:1-9 [accessed 2019 April 22].
- Motion Picture Association of America. Film Ratings [accessed 2019 April 22].
- Polansky JR, Driscoll D, Glantz SA. Smoking in top-grossing US movies, 2019. University of California, San Francisco, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, 2020.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco Use in Top-Grossing Movies—United States 2020-2018. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
- World Health Organization. Smoke-Free Movies: From Evidence to Action[PDF–754 KB]. Geneva, Switzerland, World Health Organization; 2009. [accessed 2019 April 22].
Note: The MPA’s membership changed between 2018 and 2019: AT&T acquired Time Warner, Disney acquired Twentieth Century Fox, and Netflix replaced Fox on the MPA board. Netflix’s few theatrical movies are not included in this analysis because Netflix chooses not to release box office data.