U.S. Court Dismisses MPAA Case Requiring Movies With Smoking to Be R-Rated
As times change, standards change, and we occasionally find ourselves bumping up against old traditions that need to be retired. Even some of our most beloved children’s movies feature behavior and activities — smoking, strong language, casual misogyny — that went unnoticed and unappreciated by our younger selves. Given the well-established health risks that smoking poses, one person recently took it upon himself to sue Hollywood in an attempt to get onscreen smoking banned. I’ll give a moment to guess who won.
According to The Hollywood Reporter (via io9), a recent lawsuit against the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners has been thrown out of district court. The lawsuit, which would have required movies with onscreen smoking to receive an ‘R’ rating, was dismissed due to the lack of real regulatory power of the MPAA. Here is the relevant section of the ruling:
(The plaintiff) insists that a rating less stringent than R is a representation that ‘the film is suitable for children under seventeen unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.’ The ratings plainly make no such representations. Rather, the PG and PG-13 ratings caution parents that material in such movies may be inappropriate for children. More fundamentally, the ratings reflect the consensus opinion of CARA board members. As such, neither intentional nor negligent misrepresentation claims are tenable as pleaded.
Whether you believe that smoking should be banned in movies or not, this is emblematic of the uncomfortable doublespeak the MPAA engages in on a regular basis. When it serves them, they are the voice of god, making content determinations that affect the viability of independent films and often have repercussions to the tune of millions of dollars; when it does not, they are simply providing content suggestions that parents should feel free to ignore as they see fit. No organization is as powerful, or powerless, as the MPAA, depending on whether it serves them or not.
Research does suggest that Hollywood can do more to discourage underage smoking. According to the article, while the instances of smoking in movies aimed at children has gone down, three out of every five PG-13 movies in 2015 featured a person smoking. The article also mentions a 2012 study by the U.S. Surgeon General that encouraged studios to restrict smoking to R-rated movies as a means of limiting children’s exposure to tobacco products. This likely isn’t the last time that someone challenges onscreen smoking in the courts, but hopefully, the more we tackle the problem at its source, the less these onscreen representations will present a problem.