New paper shows that Atty Gen efforts to get smoking out of movies worked, but there is more for them to do

Matthis Morgenstern  and colleagues just published “Did limits on payments for tobacco placements in US movies affect how movies are made?” in Tobacco Control.  They answered the question “yes.”

Specifically, they found that there was a big drop in screen time devoted to smoking after the state attorneys general included smoking in movies in the Master Settlement Agreement between the states and the tobacco companies.  (It is important to keep in mind that Hollywood is not a party to the MSA, so its strictures do not apply directly to the studios.)

This evidence also supports the view that smoking in movies is commercial speech rather than artistic speech.  As they note, “an abrupt drop in movie brand placements and amount of screen time devoted to smoking depictions in Hollywood movies coincided with the implementation of externally enforced restrictions on paid cigarette product placement in movies by State Attorneys General. Given that such a large share of the smoking depicted may have been commercial in nature, the smoking scene (or any other scene with product placement elements) should be interpreted and regulated as if it is commercial, not artistic speech.

This conclusion provides additional support for the idea of rating smoking movies R on the grounds that commercial products designed to be sold to kids should not be promoting smoking.

In interpreting these data it is also important to keep in mind that the MSA was not the only involvement of the state attorneys general.  Over the years they have maintained continuous interest in this issue through a series of letters on smoking in the movies to the media companies and their studios.  This continuing pressure likely also contributed to the fact that all the major studios have adopted policies (albeit with loopholes) on smoking in the movies which have also contributed to the declining amount of smoking. 

The one limitation of the paper is that the data collection ended in 2011, right after the low in onscreen smoking that rebounded, peaking again in 2012 and remaining high until last year (2015), when it returned to the 2010 low.  Even at the current historically low level, only about half the smoking has been eliminated from youth-rated films.

This situation both highlights the success of AG involvement in the Smoke Free Movies issue and also points to the need for the AGs to stay involved and be on the lookout for new opportunities to save 1 million kids’ lives by using continued legal pressure to get all the smoking out of youth-rated movies.

Here is the abstract:

Objective To compare how smoking was depicted in Hollywood movies before and after an intervention limiting paid product placement for cigarette brands.

Design Correlational analysis.

Setting/Participants Top box office hits released in the USA primarily between 1988 and 2011 (n=2134).

Intervention The Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), implemented in 1998.

Main outcome measures This study analyses trends for whether or not movies depicted smoking, and among movies with smoking, counts for character smoking scenes and average smoking scene duration.

Results There was no detectable trend for any measure prior to the MSA. In 1999, 79% of movies contained smoking, and movies with smoking contained 8 scenes of character smoking, with the average duration of a character smoking scene being 81 s. After the MSA, there were significant negative post-MSA changes (p<0.05) for linear trends in proportion of movies with any smoking (which declined to 41% by 2011) and, in movies with smoking, counts of character smoking scenes (which declined to 4 by 2011). Between 1999 and 2000, there was an immediate and dramatic drop in average length of a character smoking scene, which decreased to 19 s, and remained there for the duration of the study. The probability that the drop of −62.5 (95% CI −55.1 to −70.0) seconds was due to chance was p<10−16.

Conclusions This study’s correlational data suggest that restricting payments for tobacco product placement coincided with profound changes in the duration of smoking depictions in movies.

The full paper is available for free here.