Michael Siegel, a physician and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, believes the studies greatly exaggerate the impact of tobacco in films. "It is simply one of a large number of ways in which youths are exposed to positive images of smoking (which includes advertisements, television movies, television shows, DVDs, Internet, music videos, and a variety of other sources)," he told me in an e-mail interview. "To single out smoking in movies as THE cause of youth smoking initiation for a large percentage of kids is ridiculous."
Putting an R rating on smoky movies probably wouldn't do much to reduce teenagers' exposure. Some 75 percent of new releases that feature smoking are already rated R -- and a lot of them are accessible even to preteens. In one survey of kids in grades 5 through 8, only 16 percent said their parents never let them see R-rated films.
Siegel points out that applying R ratings to films just because they feature full-frontal shots of cigarettes may backfire. Parents anxious about sex and violence may stop paying attention to the rating system once it factors in smoking. So you could actually end up with more kids seeing films with smoking.
If the MPAA were responding to the clear preferences of parents, this change might be merely dubious. In this case, though, it acted only after getting overt pressure from state governments -- which have no more business determining what appears on movie screens than they do in deciding what goes into Judy Blume's next novel. In the minds of safety zealots, censorship in the name of public health is no vice.
The MPAA's response validates the politicians in their intrusions, and beckons them to find new ways to regulate art and other matters that are supposed to be exempt from their control. A shame it didn't give the attorneys general a simpler, better response: Snuff this.