Thursday, November 14, 2002

Smoking on the Silver Screen

I heard on the radio yesterday that the UN's World Health Organization is pushing for the MPAA to give R ratings to all movies that show people smoking. The MPAA has been resistant to WHO's pressure so far, and I hope they continue to stand firm. Giving R ratings would reduce or eliminate whatever usefulness the ratings system has. For all its faults, the ratings system has this virtue: it attempts, in a rough and ready fashion, to reflect the values shared by most people, and specifically parents, in this country. Most parents would rather not have their children see graphic depictions of sex and violence, and an R rating currently provides a reasonable indicator of whether a movie has either of those things. The fact that parents are somewhat more permissive about these things now than they've been in the past is reflected -- I think rightly -- in the loosening of standards for receiving an R ratings. Some movies that would have gotten an R in 1970 would probably get a PG or PG-13 now.

If the MPAA started giving R ratings to movies just because they show people smoking, it would mark a shift from trying to *reflect* values to trying to *shape* them. As a result, parents will find an even greater discrepancy between their own standards and the standards embodied in movie ratings. If parents see an R rating in the status quo, they can reasonably infer that the movie contains graphic sex or violence, from which the average parent wishes to protect her child. Under the WHO's proposed change, an R movie *might* contain sex or violence -- or it might just show a person lighting up while having a civil conversation.

And then there's the fact that the rating system is used to prevent young people from seeing certain movies. Under the proposed system, a 16 year old would be unable to see a movie that depicts smoking without parental accompaniment, even though he can see people smoking cigarettes on the street any day of the week. That's onerous for both the teen and his parents. If the ratings system has any value at all, it's reducing the burden of parenting by providing useful information and restricting viewing only of the movies that typical parents would object to their children seeing. Giving an R for smoking doesn't fit the bill.

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