Chris Ortman, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, defended the ratings system, which provides parents with guidance on a movie’s content, though the organization did not directly address the rise in tobacco-use imagery found by the researchers.
“This system has withstood the test of time because, as American parents’ sensitivities change, so too does the rating system,” he said in a statement. “Elements such as violence, language, drug use, and sexuality are continually re-evaluated through surveys and focus groups to mirror contemporary concern and to better assist parents in making family viewing choices.”
In 2007, the association began considering tobacco imagery in its ratings alongside other factors, but it also takes into account historical accuracy and whether or not tobacco use is glorified. The majority of films that feature tobacco ultimately receive R ratings, it said.
The report’s findings suggest that earlier progress in reducing tobacco depictions on screen had stagnated. From 2005 to 2010, portrayals of tobacco use in movies rated G, PG and PG-13 declined, but then stabilized. It is now rare to see tobacco in a movie rated G or PG, but its presence increased in PG-13 movies.
While depictions of tobacco use are up over all, the portrayals are limited to a shrinking share of movies: From 2010 to 2016, the portion of top-grossing movies that featured any tobacco use fell to 41 percent from 45 percent. In other words, the rising depiction of tobacco use is concentrated among a smaller share of movies.
The C.D.C. report relies on data from Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, a project of Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, anonprofitthat advocates clean air, healthy lungs and tobacco control.
The data is collected by trained monitors who count each instance of direct or implied tobacco use in the 10 top-grossing movies each week. The tallies are counted generously, the C.D.C. said: A new instance of tobacco use is recorded whenever a product — a cigarette, cigar, pipe, hookah or smokeless tobacco product — leaves and re-enters the screen or when a different actor is shown with a tobacco product, for example.
To their credit, the major movie studios have implemented policies that most likely helped to halve the number of occurrences of tobacco use in movies from 2005 to 2010, the researchers said. But, with the trend failing to continue, they say more needs to be done.
In addition to giving an R rating to any movie that features smoking or tobacco use, studios can certify that neither they nor their producers were paid to show tobacco on screen, and they can choose to stop depicting tobacco brands altogether, the researchers suggested. They also said that states could limit subsidies to movies that depict tobacco use.