Where There's Smoke

April 10, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a campaign afoot to have movies rated R if they have smoking in them. I’ve seen signs on cabs, on bus stops. If a studio wants its movie rated PG-13, it’ll have to hide the cigarettes.

“What a dumb idea,” says my son the teenager.

I remember that a year or so ago I took him and a friend of his to see “Good Night and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s film about Edward R. Murrow, CBS, and their clash with Sen. McCarthy. The boys were fifteen and thirteen (my wife took the friend’s sister, age eight, to see the unfortunate remake of “The Pink Panther” on another screen at the Cineplex).

“Good Night and Good Luck” did a great job of capturing the feeling of the early 1950s— the clothes, the hair, the political climate, the mores. Shooting the film in black&white helped too; the film was about television, and that’s what television in the fifties looked like. And everyone smoked.

The movie was rated PG (“for mild thematic elements and brief language”).

My sample of movies is hardly representative (my annual N rarely hits two digits). But now there’s a report documenting smoking in films in the last five years (hat tip to Eszter). The sample was just about every movie produced in the US, 1999 through 2006 (earlier studies had sampled only the most advertized or popular films). The researchers counted every tobacco “incident” (actual smoking, brand displays, or signs). They then multiplied the number of incidents by the box office sales to get a measure of overall “impressions.” These numbers were up in the billions. After all, if a movie that sold 5 million tickets had only 2 “incidents,” that’s 10 million “impressions” for that one film.

Here’s the trend for the last eight years.

I have no idea what caused the crash of 2003 (a 33% overall drop, 40% in PG films), but since then, the PG numbers have held steady. Still, the anti-smoking forces are worried since there’s evidence that smoking in films does push kids towards smoking in real life.

The article has much interesting information, with breakdowns not just by MPAA rating but also by studio. Disney, for example, especially in their PG-13 and R-rated movies, has been among the smokiest.

But it’s this chart that I find especially interesting.
The authors use it to argue for the effectiveness of slapping an R-rating on smoky movies. Since R films lose at the box office to movies with less forbidding ratings, studios will thank even their toughest characters for not smoking. Hollywood being what it is, studios would gladly sacrifice a little verisimilitude for a lot of ticket sales.

But something else in this chart should encourage the anti-smokers: apparently, non-smoking sells. In every rating category, movies without smoking have the larger box office gross. And the differences are nothing to sneeze (or cough) at— nonsmoking gives a boost of 50% boost in the R films, 25% in the G through PG-13 categories. Could differences this large — averages over all films released — be mere random variation? And if there is a real relationship, what’s the cause? More importantly, does Hollywood know about this? When studio executives are worried about the sales of some film they’re about to release, do they tell the director go back to the editing room and cut the cigarettes?

(Thanks to Max for catching my errors in the earlier version of this post.)

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