MPAA Argues That On-Screen Smoking Constitutes Freedom of Speech

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) will soon face a lawsuit that may determine the legal future of on-screen cigarette smoking and tobacco use in rated G, PG, and PG-13 movies. The MPAA’s planned course of defense? Freedom of speech.

The MPAA argues that a ban on smoking in films would be an infringement of first amendment rights, since ratings are “opinions” that should reflect most U.S. parents’ ideas about suitable content for children.

The plaintiffs in the case, led by Timothy Forsyth, aren’t buying it.

“The complaint raises no question of artistic freedom or of defendants’ right to participate in public debate,” a recent statement from their legal team reads. “Instead this lawsuit deals with quotidian issues of false labeling and advertising. The complaint asserts that defendants cannot affix a PG-13 or lower certification on movies with tobacco imagery, because they know that it has been scientifically established that subjecting children to such imagery will result in the premature death of more than a million of them.”

The MPAA says that the supposed causal link between youth smoking rates and character depictions on-screen are “too attenuated and speculative to support damages.” It is almost universally agreed, however, that prolonged smoking and tobacco use can lead to health consequences over time; by 2030, estimates suggest that six out of every 10 Baby Boomers will be dealing with one or more chronic conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long argued for increased screen regulation.

“The CDC reports that R-ratings on movies with smoking can prevent a million future tobacco deaths among American kids alone,” said Stanton Glantz, PhD, director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. “The longer they delay, the more kids worldwide will be addicted to cigarettes by the smoking in the movies Hollywood makes and exports.”

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