The Editorial

Governments who want to ban smoking from films should butt out

Public health groups say censorship will stop teens from taking up smoking. But the proof isn't in the puffing.

Martin Ruetschi/Keystone/Redux

Martin Ruetschi/Keystone/Redux

These should be salad days for anti-smoking crusaders. New data show only 15 per cent of Canadians currently smoke, and just 11 per cent on a daily basis. These are the lowest rates ever recorded; as recently as 1999, smokers made up a quarter of the population. The decline is even more pronounced among teenaged Canadians, suggesting this downward trend will continue well into the future. Despite such success, however, tobacco-control advocates seem perpetually unsatisfied—to the extent they’re now pushing measures that threaten the limits of good science, artistic freedom and civil society.

Smoking is obviously a significant health risk. While adults may choose to take it up in full knowledge of its dangers and costs, we properly restrict adolescents from making a similar choice. But how far should this effort go? The conference, Silencing Big Tobacco on the Big Screen, held in Toronto earlier this month, garnered considerable attention for its proposal that all movies featuring characters who smoke should be rated 18A (those under 18 need adult accompaniment). Impressionable young moviegoers would thus be shielded from the sight of such Hollywood role models as Cruella de Vil, the cigarette-wielding, dog-napping villain of the Disney movie 101 Dalmatians, and Gandalf, the pipe-puffing wizard from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.

Public health groups claim, with scientific certainty, that movie censorship will prevent teens from taking up the habit. U.S. research argues that 37 per cent of all teenaged smokers do so because they’ve been influenced by movies. Building on this, a study released last year by the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit obsessively toted up every glimpse of tobacco smoke across a decade’s worth of top-grossing films and declared that 4,237 residents of the province will die prematurely “as a result of tobacco imagery in movies.” Despite such exactitude, however, these claims are complicated by important questions of causality. Does the sight of a smoker in a movie seduce innocent teenagers into a lifetime of cigarette use, or do teenagers predisposed to rebellious behaviour simply prefer movies that show smoking, not to mention plenty of other equally risky activities? While anti-smoking researchers insist that their studies carefully isolate the effect of smoking on young viewers, teasing out such a nuance is simply not feasible, as Simon Chapman, editor emeritus of the academic journal Tobacco Control, has pointed out. Chapman strongly chastises the censorship movement for its “crude reductionism and questionable precision” in ignoring the near-perfect correlation between smoking and other dangerous activities in movies. The only solution to this statistical obstacle, he notes, would be to conjure a genre of movies full of smoking but lacking car chases, violence, guns, drugs, alcohol, sex, nudity, profanity and abuse of authority. Good luck with that.

The proof arising from this data is often underwhelming, as well. One of the most frequently referenced studies claiming to prove a link between cinematic smoking and youth behaviour surveyed 2,603 adolescents over 2½ years. Only six became new regular smokers. Most of the subjects mustered as evidence of the power of movie-induced smoking took “just a few puffs of a cigarette” over the entire period. It’s hardly a smoking gun. As the study itself reveals, parental behaviour exerts far more influence on adolescent tobacco use than personal taste in movies.

And, even setting aside serious defects of science, does anyone really think slapping an 18A rating on a movie will prevent unaccompanied teenagers from seeing the forbidden act of smoking? The tidal wave of pornography available for free on the Internet suggests not.

Then again, the end game is not to hide teenaged eyes from smoking in movies, but to eliminate it entirely. Faced with proposed ratings guidelines, advocates hope Hollywood will eventually remove cigarettes from all (or nearly all) of its movies to ensure the widest possible audience for its product. The campaign thus seeks control over the content of a popular art form through government regulation and coercion. Forcing the movie industry to deliver state-sanctioned religious or moral instruction would be immediately repulsive to Canadian society. Why should such a thing be acceptable in the name of promoting anti-smoking policy?

Lately, it has become popular for tobacco opponents to talk of “de-normalizing” cigarette use. New rules in Ontario and elsewhere, for example, have banned smoking outdoors in parks and sports fields—where second-hand smoke poses no legitimate health threat to others—to control what is considered normal, everyday behaviour. Plans to censor movies are similarly offensive, in that they also seek to limit what may be seen in public space. Disseminating information on the hazards of smoking remains an important function for the field of public health. But it is the not job of government to decide what normal looks like.