HSPH Shows Bad Influence of Movie Smoking

Cinematic smoking inspires children to light up, and officials from the Harvard School of Public Health are doing their part to help the silver screen kick the habit.

Last week, the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) released transcripts from a presentation given by a Harvard-affiliated panel to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) on the dangers of on-screen smoking.

Two HSPH deans and a Harvard-educated epidemiologist presented scientific research on the deleterious health effects of smoking and the strong behavioral influence of movies, following a request last February by MPAA Chair Daniel R. Glickman, who is also a former director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

“The key goal is to eliminate smoking from youth-accessible films,” HSPH Dean Barry R. Bloom, the lead presenter, wrote in an e-mailed statement.

Without proposing a specific way to cut cigarettes from movies, Bloom’s presentation encouraged the movie industry to “take substantive and effective action to eliminate the depiction of tobacco smoking from films accessible to children and youths, and take leadership and credit for doing so,” Bloom added.

The Harvard experts’ emphasis on industry self-regulation counters arguments in favor of government regulation.

“I would like them to take the lead on this issue, rather than have it regulated by governments,” Bloom wrote.

The Harvard-headed team even avoided advocating for the MPAA to brand any movie depicting smoking with an “R” rating—­—the principle platform of the “Smoke Free Movies” campaign.

“We’re not advocating an ‘R’ rating or any other specified action,” said SPH Associate Dean and co-presenter Jay A. Winsten. “We’re leaving that up to the film industry.”

Arnheim Lecturer on Filmmaking Robb Moss, however, said he is skeptical about Hollywood’s willingness to cut back on its addiction to cigarettes.

“I think they would resist it­—not just for smoking but for where it could lead,” he said, noting that changing the ratings system borders on censorship and may lead to increasing infringement on creative liberties.

“What about books?,” he asked. If people smoke in a book, “should that be stamped on the front that ‘this book contains dangerous behaviors?”

And Winsten said that while it is difficult to define censorship boundaries, he does not think there is any ambiguity about whether cigarettes deserve censorship.

“I’m not sure where to draw the line,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement, “but I would certainly draw it to protect kids from the ‘Number One Preventable Cause of Death: Tobacco Smoking.’”

Winsten also stressed that his team’s recommendations fall short of censorship. “It’s not censorship because we’re asking, not demanding,” he said.

Some companies, such as Warner Bros., have already articulated their own anti-smoking policies.