Changing Filmmakers' Attitudes About the Harm Caused by Depicting Smoking in Movies

Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, 2000 Innovator Combating Substance Abuse

    • July 23, 2009

Stanton A. Glantz, PhD
Director, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education
Professor of Medicine
University of California, San Francisco
San Francisco, Calif.

The problem: The frequency of smoking on screen in top-grossing movies in the United States has about doubled since 1990 and is at levels not seen since 1950, before people realized that smoking is a major cause of disease and death, according to a 2003 article in The Lancet online written by Stanton A. Glantz, PhD. He sees smoking in movies as a major and growing public health problem.

Programee background: Glantz is nationally recognized as a leader in tobacco control. Over 20 years, his work has ranged from scholarly articles on environmental effects of tobacco smoke to advocating for effective tobacco policies.

The award: In 2000, Glantz received an Innovators Combating Substance Abuse award and got a chance to advance his work. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) created the Innovators program to nurture and promote innovation in combating substance abuse. Between 2000 and 2003, some 20 senior researchers, practitioners and policy-makers received Innovators awards.

Glantz used his Innovators award to educate the entertainment industry about the harm caused by depicting smoking in movies. His Smoke Free Movies project aimed to change attitudes among filmmakers regarding the consequences of portraying smoking in movies.

Glantz's primary strategy involved placing a series of 58 paid advertisements in the West Coast edition of the New York Times, Variety and other publications read by film executives. He also created a website that showcases the advertisements. The website describes how Hollywood's portrayal of smoking in movies influences audiences.

Glantz also wrote several journal articles about smoking featured in movies.

Results: According to Glantz's September 2003 report to RWJF:

  • Since the Web site was launched in March 2001, there had been 6.9 million requests for pages from 202,200 distinct hosts.
  • The World Health Organization, the American Legacy Foundation and the Los Angeles Department of Health issued statements endorsing Glantz's four policy goals:
    • Certify no pay-offs. All movies that depict smoking should include the following statement in their closing credits: "No person or entity involved in this motion picture accepted anything from any tobacco company, its agents or fronts."
    • Require anti-smoking ads. When movies contain depictions of smoking, theaters, videos and DVDs should feature anti-smoking ads as well.
    • Stop identifying brands of cigarettes. The visual endorsement of a particular brand of cigarette is powerful and has become more common in recent years.
    • Rate new smoking movies "R." Except when an historical figure who smoked is being depicted, all new movies with smoking and tobacco should receive an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Changing these ratings will reduce the amount of smoking that teens see in movies by 60 percent.
  • Some 27 state attorneys generals wrote the Motion Picture Association of America asking it to take action to reduce smoking in youth-related films.
  • Teens in several states became involved in the Smoke Free Movies campaign through state youth tobacco-control advocacy programs. The largest one, New York State's Reality Check, generated more than 200,000 letters to the Motion Picture Association of America, the Directors' Guild, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, urging them to get involved with the problem of smoking in the movies.

Importance of the award: "This project has been much more successful than I expected, although the work is not yet finished," said Glantz. "I have been surprised at the level of active involvement by organizations. Hollywood has been more recalcitrant than I expected but we are making progress."

RWJF perspective: "The Innovators Combating Substance Abuse program recognized the innovation and creativity of researchers, advocates and providers who have dedicated their professional careers to reducing the toll of substance use and abuse," said Michelle A. Larkin, JD, RN, MS, RWJF senior program officer. "These individuals have had an extraordinary impact on the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, promoting the science and advocating for positive and lasting change."

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