OTTAWA, ONTARIO – A new study on the effect on children of watching smoking in movies found that federal and provincial subsidies to Hollywood studios undermine public health efforts to reduce smoking.
“Studies worldwide show smoking in movies is one of the most powerful recruiters of young people into lifelong tobacco addiction,” said Neil Collishaw, research director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, which commissioned the study “Tobacco Vector”. “Now we have estimates that 130,000 teenage Canadians who currently smoke were recruited by their exposure to smoking on screen, of whom 43,000 will die prematurely from smoking.”
The compelling evidence that exposure to smoking in films causes young people to become smokers has led the World Health Organization, the U.S. Institute of Medicine, the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and now today the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, among many others, to call for steps to permanently and substantially reduce young people’s exposure. The U.S. film industry has so far refused appeals to change its self-administered rating system to apply an adult rating to new films with tobacco content.
“Canada’s provincial movie ratings don’t protect children as well as U.S. ratings,” said Dr. Chris Mackie, whose organization has coordinated campaigns for smoke-free movies in central-west Ontario. “Because so many R-rated films are re-rated ’14A’ or ‘PG’ when they cross our borders, Canadian youth can watch more than two-thirds of these smoking movies. American youth see fewer than half.”
“Canadian provincial and federal governments are unintentionally contributing to the problem,” said Jonathan Polansky, author of the study and a consultant to tobacco prevention agencies and policy research projects in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and other nations. “First, the provincial rating systems allow many of the U.S. studio films with the most smoking, R-rated in the U.S., to be dumped into the Canadian youth market, spiking youth tobacco exposure. Second, scores of U.S. studio films with smoking, accessible to young people, are actually being paid for by Canada’s taxpayers through generous production tax credits.”
The study estimated that, over the past five years, Canada’s provinces and the federal government granted a quarter of a billion dollars to fund Hollywood productions intended for young audiences and that featured smoking. Every dollar in film subsidies may in the end cost Canada $1.70 in societal tobacco losses.
“Our concerns are not with film artists, small producers, or documentary film-makers,” said Neil Collishaw. “The problem is with big Hollywood studios wittingly or unwittingly promoting smoking around the world, and with Canadian tax dollars being used to harm the health of young people world-wide.”
The report identifies several steps governments should take, including changing rating systems to ensure youth-rated films do not depict smoking (unless the smoker is an actual historical figure known to have smoked or the film unambiguously portrays the dire health consequences of tobacco use), ending display of tobacco brands in films, requiring film producers to attest that their production was not influenced to show tobacco, and making future youth-accessible films that depict smoking ineligible for public subsidies.