Tobacco and obesity have raced towards the top of the global political agenda in recent years, but they may soon have an impact on the bottom line for the film industry. Wherever one stands on the social impact of cinema on children in particular, there is no doubt health campaigners have the film industry in their sights.

And if initiatives succeed, producers may be left with a choice between changing the marketing and content of films or taking the financial hit that comes with a more restrictive certificate.

Anti-smoking campaigners have been particularly active. In the US, children's advocacy groups are pressing for an automatic R rating (meaning not recommended for ages under 17) for films that depict smoking, with a few specific exceptions. And last week saw the fourth International Week of Action on Movies and Smoking, organised by campaign group Screen Out!

Backed by medical groups, the campaign looks to secure restrictive ratings on films that feature smoking. Suggested sample letters for supporters to send to studio heads and local exhibitors set the tone: 'Smoking (on screen) is even more of a hazard than if you allowed smoking in the theatre itself.'

The movement is also gaining momentum in Europe. In the UK, youth anti-smoking organisation D-Myst held a one-day conference in Liverpool to condemn what it calls 'toxic movies' with positive depictions of smoking.

Organisers have sent petitions to the US studios and the British Board of Film Classification (Bbfc), whose policy on smoking in films states that 'works which glamorise smoking are a concern'. Via the Bbfc website, parents can access information on how much smoking is featured in a particular film. However, according to the board's head of communications, Sue Clark, it is a step too far to award films such as Atonement or Good Night, And Good Luck (rated a 15 and PG respectively in the UK) an 18 certificate because a character smokes where it is historically in context. 'We believe that is too heavy-handed,' she says.

Elsewhere in Europe, a study funded by the German Ministry of Health, published in December, concluded that 'movie smoking was present in 74% of the 398 movies (surveyed, the vast majority Hollywood imports)... A number of policy considerations could, in theory, affect adolescent exposure to smoking in movies. Specifically, movie-rating boards could rate smoking just as they rate violence for public-health reasons.'

The film industry can expect such criticism to continue, with many advocates funded directly or indirectly by government health initiatives.

The potential for such campaigns to succeed has been demonstrated in previous lobbying over on-screen violence.

The year after the 1999 high-school killings in Columbine, Colorado, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a landmark report - Marketing Violent Entertainment To Children: a review of self-regulation and industry practices in the motion picture, music recording & electronic game industries. It proved embarrassing to Hollywood by unearthing evidence that inappropriately young children were targeted by ads for films with restrictive ratings.

The Motion Picture Association of America (Mpaa) responded with a 12-point self-regulation programme for the major studios that improved industry practices, according to five follow-up FTC reports.

This seems to have placated the US Congress, which held hearings after the first report was issued. Among the voluntary restrictions is a pledge that all advertising for R-rated films be aimed at age-appropriate audiences.

Toying with new restrictions

Health campaigns are now looking to have a similarly strong impact, and are not restricted to smoking - other issues include childhood obesity. Last year, the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood mobilised a campaign against fast-food tie-ins associated with DreamWorks' Shrek The Third. It also complained last summer to the FTC about toys and co-marketing promotions for Paramount/DreamWorks' Transformers. These were aimed at very young children and were given away at a fast-food chain.

The FTC declined enforcement action but indicated sympathy, saying it 'believes the (film) industry should assess its current approach to determine whether it is adequate to ensure that PG-13 movies are marketed in a manner consistent with the rating'.

An Mpaa spokesperson says: 'We are glad the FTC supported our self-regulatory approach and we will continue our work to ensure inappropriate material is not used to advertise to wide audiences.'

That self-regulation has proved sufficient to head off campaigners. US film classification is voluntary and industry-administered. But the US majors and their affiliates agree to have all their films, without exception, rated by the Mpaa classification board.

Independents are free to distribute films unrated, but there is a stigma to such movies (some media outlets such as newspapers refuse to carry their ads) which complicates marketing.

The Mpaa Advertising Administration oversees marketing practices on rated films, and enforces age-appropriate ad content and placements for some PG-13 films but not all. It is not clear which PG-13 marketing materials and placements are held to this standard and which are not.

'The film industry has been better on R-rated movies,' says Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. But he believes Hollywood has 'a long way to go' on PG-13, which he terms a 'self-regulation failure'.

The issue is muddled because the US film age ratings are simply recommendations, and younger children can be admitted if accompanied by a parent or adult guardian, except for the rarely issued NC-17 rating (no children aged 17 and under). So teens and children may see PG-13 and R-rated films in cinemas with their parents. The most recent Mpaa-commissioned independent poll found 78% of parents with children under the age of 13 believe the existing ratings system to be 'very useful' to 'fairly useful' in helping them make decisions about which films their children may see.

In May 2007, the Mpaa said it would add smoking to its criteria for considering restrictive ratings, joining drug use, profanity, sex and violence. Professor Stanton A Glantz, director of the Centre for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, says this is still inadequate. He advocates automatic R ratings, unless smoking is shown in a bad light (such as a character suffering medical problems) or for historical accuracy (Winston Churchill smoking a cigar, for example).

Waiting to exhale

There is evidence the studios are limiting the incidences of celluloid smoking. For example, the cast was primarily smoke-free in Ocean's 13, unlike earlier in the series, and while the first two Bourne films contained smoking, there was none to be seen in 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum.

From a marketing point of view, any tightening of restrictions would surely cut into film economics. According to an Mpaa survey of US cinema-goers, the 12-15 age group represented just 7% of the population but 12% of admissions in 2005 (the most recent year for which data is available).

Also, mainstream films garner millions of dollars in advertising through promotional partners such as fast-food restaurants, soft drink and toy partners, which would be at risk in the event of tighter advertising restrictions. Already, such consumer-goods film partners in the US are being more selective and 'the atmosphere is changing', according to Ira Mayer, publisher of the Youth Markets Alert newsletter at New York City-based EPM Communications.

The US media industry has a shield from critics in the form of the Children's Advertising Review Unit (Caru), a body for self-regulation formed by the US advertising and business community. Caru notifies companies of lapses in child protection and seeks remedies, which are usually made voluntarily. Compliance avoids potential FTC enforcement actions.

Among recent Caru actions were enquiries into Wild Hogs, Stomp The Yard, Employee Of The Month, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and X-Men: The Last Stand in relation to TV commercials on children's channels for what are PG-13-rated films. In some cases, the misplacement may be the fault of a cable channel, not the distributor. Marketing via websites is another frequent area of Caru action.

Ratings creep

A rallying point for Hollywood's critics is what they claim to be a loosening of ratings standards for Casino Royale, the two most recent Harry Potter films and the Spider-Man series, as well as Transformers. All were rated PG-13 in the US.

'Although parents report a relatively high satisfaction level with the Mpaa system, some critics assert that, over time, 'ratings creep' has resulted in more violence in films rated PG and PG-13,' stated an FTC report in April 2007.

It has been argued that studios have a financial incentive to obtain a PG-13 rating, a rating that does not restrict admission to anyone but tolerates a substantial amount of violent content attractive to 12-17-year-olds.'

It is not clear if the advocacy groups will make headway in the US, because at present the general public and elected officials in Congress seem indifferent or neutral. Indeed, they may even oppose a crackdown if it waters down well-received films such as the Spider-Man and Harry Potter series, which many parents take children under the age of 13 to see in US cinemas.

'What would change the atmosphere is a flagrant abuse that rouses the press and public, and gives politicians a soundbite to express outrage,' says one industry source. The betting is the Mpaa - which is keeping a low profile on the issue - will be careful not to let a cause celebre slip through its rating system.'s 'Ratings' For Top 10 2007 Films
Title (Distributor)box officeratingrating*
1Spider-Man 3 (Sony Pictures)$336.5mPG-131.85
'In this sequel the battle lies within... Peter Parker's
lungs, thanks to all the second-hand cigar smoke that J
Jonah Jameson puffs around him.'
2Shrek The Third (Par/DreamWorks)$322.7mPG0
'The characters' smoke-free life gave them a
fairy-tale ending.'
3Transformers (Par/DreamWorks)$319.2mPG-130
'It's a good thing no transformation is needed to turn the
stars of Transformers into non-smoking actors - they do
it all on their own!'
4Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End (Walt
Disney SMP)$309.4mPG-130
'Unlike Dead Man's Chest, these pirates made it to
World's End without any pipe-smoking.'
5Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (Warner Bros)$292mPG-130
'These young wizards won't need to learn any spells to
prevent lung cancer because they live tobacco-free.'
6I Am Legend (Warner Bros)$254.7mPG-130
'Will Smith continues to be immune to the temptation of
using tobacco to portray any type of message - a testament
to his acting ability and social responsibility.'
7The Bourne Ultimatum (Universal Pictures)$227.5mPG-130
'Unlike its predecessors, this box-office hit proves it's
the ultimate Bourne by not including tobacco use.'
8National Treasure: Book Of Secrets (Walt Disney SMP)$215.1mPG1.14
'Your classic Disney movie, with only one very minor
hint of smoking.'
9Alvin And The Chipmunks (20th Century Fox)$212mPG0
'The chipmunks know tobacco-free is the way to be.'
10300 (Warner Bros)$210.6mR0
'The Spartans are too busy protecting their country to
light up any form of tobacco.'
* The lower the Smoking Rating, the less smoking is portrayed in a film; at the high end, a 2.5 or more receives a 'Black Lung' rating. Source: smoking info from