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Rated R: Should Smoking In Movies Result In Adult Ratings?

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In a policy paper released this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that movies in which characters are shown smoking should receive restrictive adult ratings. If fewer children observe the behavior on the big screen, WHO reasons, fewer will try to emulate the dangerous habit. Although WHO’s recommendations are little more than suggestions with no legal weight, it does raise the question of how media depictions of smoking (and other hazardous behaviors) influence youngsters.

Most of us are generally familiar with movie ratings, which have been a source of much controversy over the years. For some movies, the difference between a PG-13 rating and an R rating can mean millions of dollars in lost ticket sales (for proof, read about the ratings battle over eventual Best Picture winner The King’s Speech). Broadly speaking, “adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, [or] drug abuse” will result in a “Restricted” or R rating. Television has adopted similar ratings. If a character lights up on screen, should that automatically trigger an R or M rating? Should Don Draper’s cigarette smoking in Mad Men be treated differently than Disney’s representation of the hookah-smoking Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? What role should parents have in this matter?

While movies and TV shows often glamorize and romanticize unhealthy conduct, the media’s impact on children has been a touchy subject for decades. The Motion Picture Association of America, which issues movie ratings, has struggled mightily to find an appropriate balance in their decisions. As the MPAA and TV industry try to figure out how to respond to WHO’s guidance, parents should take this opportunity to consider how susceptible their children are to depictions of unhealthy behavior in the media.