Deadly Movies

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A full-page ad in last Wednesday's New York Times claimed an automatic R rating for movies that depict smoking "would cut movie smoking's effect on kids in half, saving 50,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone." On the "Smoke Free Movies" Web site, the coalition that sponsored the ad claims "an 'R' rating would prevent 535 kids from starting to smoke every day–and prevent 170 early deaths."

The first clue that these numbers are not as authoritative as they seem is that 170 multiplied by 365 is not 50,000 but 62,050. Maybe the R rating's life-saving magic does not work on Sundays and national holidays. Another problem is that it's hard to say how many teenagers would be deterred by greater use of the R rating–especially if their parents knew that a single smoking scene was enough to qualify an otherwise unobjectionable movie for the not-without-a-parent-or-guardian category. But the weakest link in the chain of reasoning that charges the MPAA with killing 170 (middle-aged or elderly) "kids" a day by failing to make this simple change in its rating system is the assumption that half of the teenagers who start smoking do so because they saw it in the movies.

That assumption, in turn, is based on a correlational study that found 10-to-14-year-olds who had seen movies with many smoking scenes were more likely to try cigarettes than kids who had seen movies with fewer smoking scenes. As I've pointed out, the problem with attributing this association to the modeling effect of cinematic smoking is that it's impossible to control for all the differences in personality and environment that made kids in the study more likely to see movies with a lot of smoking in them, which tended to be R-rated movies.

Methodological difficulties aside, the size of this alleged effect is implausibly large, to put it mildly. Stanton Glantz, the anti-smoking activist behind this crusade (and a specialist at producing laughable statistics), says cinematic smoking accounts for even more real-life smoking than advertising does: 52 percent vs. 34 percent. That makes sense, he says, because "the subliminal effects of smoking in movies is [sic] a more powerful force than overt advertising." Is it even conceivable that differential exposure to movies and advertising accounts for 86 percent of smoking? That all other factors in life together contribute only 14 percent?

The point is not that on-screen smoking has no impact at all on teenagers' perceptions of the habit. But this sort of influence, like the impact of advertising, is subtle, interactive, and difficult, if not impossible, to measure. It's preposterous to think that smoking by movie characters has the sort of mechanistic, precisely quantifiable effect suggested by the phony numbers anti-smoking activists like to cite.

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