Doctors issue health warning over smoking in British film blockbusters

Some of Britain’s biggest recent films have come under fire from doctors who say they are more likely than Hollywood movies to include specific cigarette brands.Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones

They are demanding an overhaul of the film classification system so that cinema releases are given a higher age rating depending on the amount and type of tobacco consumption they portray.

Such a move is needed because the presence of smoking on the big screen is likely to influence young viewers, according to researchers from Nottingham University, writing in the journal Thorax.

They counted the number of incidents of smoking or smoking-related references or depictions in the 15 most popular films released in the UK between 1989 and 2008. “Although smoking imagery and branding images in the most popular films have become substantially less common over the past 20 years, it is apparent children and young people watching films in the UK are still exposed to frequent and, at times, specifically branded tobacco imagery, particularly in films originating from the UK”, Prof John Britton and colleagues write.

Bridget Jones’s Diary featured Renée Zellweger regularly smoking Silk Cut, as she does in the book on which the film was based. The film was rated as suitable for anyone aged 15 or over.

The authors write: “In About a Boy, the main character, Will [played by Hugh Grant], also smoked Silk Cut regularly throughout the duration of the film, mostly in the presence of a 12-year-old boy. In the novel on which this film was based, Will smoked infrequently and no brand was identified.”

The authors call on the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to factor depictions of smoking much more heavily into its ratings, just as it already does for portrayals of violence and illicit drug use.

The board currently rates about two-thirds of films which portray smoking as suitable for viewing by under-18s, even though 18 is now the legal age at which people are allowed to smoke, they add. Many medical leaders backed reclassification. “This is an important public health issue because impressionable children and teenagers look up to role models, including sporting heroes and TV and film stars,” said Prof Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

“While British TV has made great strides in reducing on-screen smoking, the film industry lags behind. There are still too many ‘heroes’ smoking in films shown across the UK.”

Prof Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “At present children are protected from images of hard drug use with an 18 certification, but films which show smoking in a glamorous way can still get a U classification. We believe that unless there is solid factual evidence for it, smoking should not be portrayed in films aimed at under-18s.”

And Prof Terence Stevenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “Where possible the censors should edit out non-essential scenes involving smoking from any film that is accessible to under-18s.”

Martin Dockrell of the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health said the UK should take action to outlaw product placement by cigarette manufacturers in films, as tobacco advertising is banned here. “The tobacco companies have a long history of product placement in films aimed at children including the Muppet Movie and Superman. This wouldn’t be allowed in the US and it is astonishing that it should happen in the UK where tobacco advertising is against the law. It is time we adopted WHO guidelines that recommend films should certify that no paid product placement.

A BBFC spokeswoman, Sue Clark, said it had no intention of changing its policy. “These doctors [the authors] are out of step with public opinion. We have asked the public specifically if smoking should be a classification or category-defining issue, and the response overwhelmingly was no, it shouldn’t.”The board flags up overt smoking content through its consumer advice, the short sentence on all film advertising which warns about sexual or violent content, and also by setting out on its website the factors underlying its decision to grant a film a particular rating, she added. “It’s then up to parents whether or not they stop their children seeing that film.”

BBFC assessors only use smoking as a criterion if it is “actively promoting smoking to a very young audience, of children aged 12 and under”, added Clark, who admitted that they had never seen such a film.

New films containing smoking are mainly set in the past, when smoking was more common, partly because of the 2007 ban on smoking in public places.

By Denis Campbell
The Guardian, 29 April 2010

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