'Automatic R': Should Smoking in the Movies Get You Censored?


The critics have finally spoken up about the trouble (or lack thereof) with smoking in movies, with one even going so far as to call for an automatic R-rating when characters light up onscreen. Well! It's about time we had this talk! We all knew Avatar would be a game-changer! That said, someone needs some straightening out, so let's get right to it.

A day after anti-smoking proponents exploited Avatar to restate their case for penalizing tobacco use in the movies with an R-rating, New York Times critic A.O. Scott ventured his support for the depiction of smoking on screen. While he didn't address the ratings squabble in particular, he did make a persuasive case for letting films depict a world that's both entertaining, real (yes, people smoke! And now we're even less likely to get diabetes! Yay!) and imminently obsolete. "Make it something akin to time travel," Scott wrote, "or slapstick, or a mad drive to the airport to stop the one you love from getting on that plane -- something that only happens in the movies."

That's... nice, but absurd, replied David Edelstein on Tuesday. Even after fuming over erstwhile anti-smoker editors who once blocked his own description of a chain-smoking interview subject, the New York Magazine critic nevertheless joined the ranks of puritans who would have filmmakers punished for their own choice of expression. But because tobacco companies are receiving much of the benefit, and because we need to protect the children, apparently it's all right (and I quote at length for full context):

I don't believe that the anti-smoking crusaders are so out of line, at least in their demand that movies with cigarettes get an automatic "R" rating. No, that doesn't mean we expunge smoking from movies already made. We just make it tougher for new films with cigarette use to influence kids. Just as important, when tobacco companies pay to put their wares in a film, that information needs to appear in the credits -- prominently. It's one thing when everyone lights up in Good Night and Good Luck, in which the ubiquitous tobacco smoke evokes the era better than anything onscreen. (Too bad there was no list at the end of all the characters' real-life counterparts who died of lung cancer or associated heart disease.) It's another when cigarettes are a product placement akin to Cheerios or Apple computers.

This isn't an easy call. I treasure the image of William Powell and Myrna Loy attempting to out-drink one another in The Thin Man -- I think of it often as I order my fourth or fifth whiskey. Somewhere, I still have a poster of Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke, which probably retains the aroma of the bong that sat proudly beneath it in my dorm room. And damn if Bogie and Belmondo aren't still the apogee of cool. Scott is dead right in arguing that vice in movies can be very entertaining. But for our kids' sake, let's treat the addiction to deadly chemicals as a vice and not as a normal, healthy part of everyday life.

Hey, I like kids, too. But really? A mainstream critic is arguing that films featuring smoking -- either one cigarette or 100, from Avatar to Good Night and Good Luck -- should be regulated and made restricted viewing for children under 17? I wouldn't be lazy enough to argue against this on the basis that kids so impressionable are smoking already anyway (even if it's true), but I would ask Edelstein to reconsider the implications of that R-rating.

Simply put, the restriction of artwork from an audience on the basis of its content is censorship. Even the MPAA would have to admit that, if only because its ratings board was originally established for self-regulation in lieu of government oversight. And with that in mind, we all kind of live with it -- viewers, filmmakers and studios alike. We live with exactly the kinds of arbitrary standards that Edelstein cited almost 11 years ago writing about Eyes Wide Shut's NC-17 threat, in which he concluded that a realistically depicted fight -- one punch, broken bones and tons of blood -- is likelier to garner an R-rating than the cartoonish, choreographed fight sequences in any number of PG, PG-13 or even G-rated movies.

That backwards judgment is to blame for a lot of the frustration with the ratings system, particularly for independent filmmakers and distributors for whom the difference between a PG-13 and an R can means millions of dollars in revenue. Thus they cut material as cited (never suggested, of course, because that's unquestionably censorship) by the ratings board, and the enactment of those cuts perpetuates those same arbitrary standards for the sake of the bottom line. If a modestly budgeted film with no otherwise objectionable material -- no violence, language or sexuality of any kind -- features a character who smokes, or one who is around characters who smoke, you're telling me that the ratings boards should automatically stamp that film with an R rating? You could always argue that the film could have been made without smoking in it, but then you're getting into the issue of curtailing expression, and you're right back to censorship.


David Poland addressed this as well earlier this morning. "I have no problem with telling filmmakers, 'Keep this in mind before you do it for cheap effect,'" he wrote. "You just have no right to tell them not to do it or to try to intimidate them into making an alternative choice." Furthermore, where do we draw the line? Are documentaries exempt? Should we make handgun use an automatic R, lest kids be influenced to acquire and use a weapon? If this is just about vice, I would think alcohol, gambling and cigarettes must fall under the same standard.

Anyway, I love how so many people who discuss this matter inveigh on how they don't smoke before reinforcing movies' rights to show this filthy, icky, cancerous habit onscreen -- like their support is some gesture of moral, magnanimous largesse. Bullshit. The point is that smoking is legal, it's taxed (to the tune of $15 billion annually) and it's a pastime enjoyed by millions of people. Is it deadly, destructive and addictive? Of course it is; that's part of its psychic appeal, and that's often exactly why characters in movies do it. (Not to mention that when you film it right, it looks better than anything filmable ever except maybe Grace Kelly. And Grace Kelly smoking? Forget about it.) I've said it before, and I'll say it again, hopefully for the last time: We refuse to be rated R. The kids will have to get over it.


  • NP says:

    Woop! Great post.

  • Blackcapricorn says:

    When did kids take over? This really goes too far to placate them.
    Hopefully this will not extend to websites. I don't want anyone to restrict who can read the Fingerbang Threat Level!

  • Mikey says:

    It's smart posts like this that make me come back here again and again. Thanks for thinking, and writing, like an adult.

  • Aww! Thanks, Mikey, we all appreciate it.

  • Martini Shark says:

    Had this same conversation with someone yesterday, how numerous illegal acts can be included in PG films and they want puffers to be rated-R. This is one of those obsessive nanny-state movements that needs a pushback.
    Last year a guy approached me with an anti-smoking petition, while I was smoking a cigar. He blathered about personal rights and free expression, so I placed the lit end of my fat roll on the bottom of his pages as he spoke, explaining that was my free expression.

  • Anemone says:

    Nobody cares about the actors. Why shouldn't they have smoke-free work environments, too?

  • Jamie says:

    Oh my GOD, when are these people going to leave us non-parents/non-children ALONE? Not everything ever made has to be appropriate for six-year-olds. I watched movie after movie as a kid with people who smoked, and guess what? I am not a smoker. See? There. Keep your Barney-ass paws off my movies.

  • E Ragan says:

    If you make any prohibitions on cigarettes & smoking, the same should be made on the followng: alcohol & drug use (including beer, wine, and prescription drugs), pre-marital sexual relations, verbal violence and obscenity (including abusive, loud & angry communications), and physical violence.
    Actually, smoking is not as offensive as those other items mentioned. I've never been hurt or abused by someone’s tobacco use, smoking or otherwise; but have experienced family members maimed by drunken drivers, had friends hurt by violent abusive spouses, and relatives who had to raise illegitimate grandchildren because their daughter unfortunately became involved with one of the many low-lifes parading as men. Go back to the morals of about 50 years on the screen & the world will become a better place.

  • Lucas says:

    okay I have some mixed views on the matter.
    first off, if it's historical then so what. everyone knows that folks smoked in the past.
    second, I'm not your kids parents. seriously. its not my job to not expose them to nasty things in movies, books, the public library computers. it's not my job to make sure they aren't necking in the corner at the mall. you are the parent, that's your job. and it's your job to cover all that stuff. and teach your kids about the cons of smoking, drinking, sex before marriage and/or without birth control.
    that said, sometimes I think that movies put in drinking, smoking, sex and cussing just cause. it doesn't do anything for the story so why bother.
    Look at the Twilight films. As annoying as they might be, they are really puritanical. no beer bashes, no smoking, no drugs even mentioned outside of the illusion to heroin used to explain Edwards blood lust. there's no sex, no scanty clothes and barely any kissing and what there is is extreme chaste. and Edward is all insistent on marriage before sex AND vamping (in other vamp literature feeding is equated to sex so even that is covered). And the movies and books work. they have made box office and folks obsess over them and go back over and over.
    if writers want to avoid smoking, drugs, sex, violence etc they often can. its just easier not to.

  • John M says:

    Yes, let's all take a cue from TWILIGHT.
    Wait, what? That's idiotic.

  • Tommy Marx says:

    Excellent post. It makes no sense that Brothers & Sisters depicts drinking alcohol every chance it gets, That Seventies Show depicts the main characters smoking pot, and yet someone smoking a cigarette would immediately qualify a movie for an R rating. What I'd like to know is how are all these terrified parents who just want to protect their kids going to keep them from seeing - gasp - real people smoking? Will they all move to a puritanical village in the middle of a state park and dress up as monsters to keep their children from leaving?

  • SunnydaZe says:

    What makes this ridiculous is how common smoking is in everyday life. A child might never see an actual gun fired or an anvil drop on a duck's head unless he sees these acts in a movie or cartoon. A child is going to see many people smoking in reality long before they see their first Bogart movie.
    I always wonder why coffee is left out of these discussions. Caffeine is addictive, causes altered behavior, and can lead to health issues.
    So, I declare an immediate R-rating on coffee drinking in films.

  • JR says:

    The pathetic part is, smoking will be banned in P-13 movies, but they'll still be free to discuss felatio and sodomy. The MPAA system will be worse than it already is. I've seen more suitable R movies for a 13 year old to watch than PG-13, and now that smoking will be considered Restricted, you'll have movies containing the aforementioned rated PG- 13, but a R movie that's PG material with a cigarette in it. Wow, this will really work MPAA. I could go on and on all day about how political correctness is causing nothing but violence and frustration in society, but I'm not in the mood to write an essay.
    Source: Logic.

  • Checko says:

    To all the self-centered uninformed adults who express no concern for or reject a responsibility for the well being of children- maybe think about these facts that might motivate your self concerns: smoking is a $150 BILLION a year burden on America in health care costs and lost productivity (we're talkin' lots of tax dollars folks), 90% of adult nicotine addicts got hooked as kids, and research states that 52% of smoking initiation by kids is caused by smoking scenes in movies.
    Since we all pay that tax bill, reducing the negative influence of children could either save taxpayers' money or lest reallocate to something that serves you. So, being a responsible adult is actually in your self interest- even if you don't really care about children, yours or some relative. Wanting a freedom that ignores such consequences is immature, and certainly is not "free"- you pay!

  • Fran says:

    Actually, smoking reduces overall health care costs, mostly because smokers die sooner, so they don't cost as much in heath care over their lives. So, you know, it ain't about the money.

  • Jonathan Polansky says:

    Since 1927, the tobacco industry has been playing footsie with the film industry to promote smoking and cigarette brands — cross-promotion, star endorsements brokered by studios in exchange for national film advertising paid by tobacco industry, paid product placement, and on and on.
    The R — which is industry-run; the government has nothing to do with it — is the least intrusive way to have studios and producers factor tobacco into the content calibrations they make for rating, that is, marketing, purposes.
    Most smoking incidents are already in R-rated films. But most tobacco impressions (to use an advertising term) are delivered by kid-rated films because they have larger audiences.
    The net effect of an R for future smoking, with exceptions for real people who smoked (documentaries, biopix) and unambiguous portrayals of the health consequences (rarely if ever shown even in the most "realistic" films) will be to reserve most smoking imagery for R-rated movies and keep it out of the movies that adolescents see most.
    So: we can have smoking on screen AND fewer kids smoking. And it's not censorship, unless you consider the current MPAA rating system to be censorship. No matter what inducements the tobacco industry offers, now or in the future, producers and studios will have a standard that makes them ask, "Does being corrupt really pencil out?" Sounds reasonable to me.

  • Martini Shark says:

    Checko, with line of logic you are going to be left with NOTHING that you are free to engage in, because if the government is running health care everything can be legislated from a cost-risk stance. Just about any food will lead to obesity, the speed limit will have to be lowered to 30mph, and movies will be banned because watching in the dark is bad for your eyes.

  • Philio says:

    I think an R rating just for someone smoking is about the dumbest thing ever. If they are going to do that, then they might as well go all out and make eating to much, stealing and telling lies in movies automatically get a R rating because it is setting a bad example for kids as well. This country is just getting to out of hand with its PC BS.

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  • Frank Arrick says:

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