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Smoking and R-Ratings

As a filmmaker and -- please note -- non-smoker, I need to say something about the current push to make smoking in films a crime punishable by an R rating.
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As a filmmaker and -- please note -- non-smoker, I need to say something about the current push to make smoking in films a crime punishable by an R rating.

And that something is: hold on a second. What exactly are we talking about?

Let's start with what's true: Smoking is a terrible thing. It kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. Young people shouldn't smoke, and seeing smoking in films probably influences millions of them to start. No argument.

The problem is that excess drinking is a terrible thing and also kills millions of people a year. And influences young people. Driving automobiles irresponsibly is a truly terrible thing and kills tens of thousands of people a year and influences young people. Guns are terrible things. Sexual harassment is a terrible thing. Robbery is a terrible thing. War is a terrible thing. Being mean to other children is a terrible thing.

The world is filled with terrible things that can influence children, and movies have depicted them since time immemorial. Should every terrible thing warrant an R-rating?

To answer that we must understand why we have a ratings system to begin with. If you go on the website for the Ratings Board, you will see that to the extent it has a philosophy, the Board tries to enforce the poorly defined (because it's indefinable) concept of "current community standards" regarding what parents want their children shielded from. There's a very important distinction to be made here. We're talking about things that children are generally kept from seeing in their normal lives, and which many parents get really upset about if their children do see -- excessive violence, sex and nudity, drug use, profanity. R-ratings do not result from the depiction of things that children can't be shielded from seeing in their normal lives, like the afore-mentioned drinking, driving, guns, war, etc. The point is that smoking is a legal act that takes place ubiquitously in public. Children are routinely exposed to the sight of smoking in the real world. Current community standards are therefore clear: no matter how bad smoking is, there is no place in America where children are shielded from the very fact of it.

To demand an R-rating for the existence of smoking in a film is therefore an attempt to change current community standards -- to influence children not to smoke, to marginalize smoking even further in our society. In other words, social engineering. As a filmmaker I find this utterly objectionable, no matter how high-minded the goal. If smoking merits an R-rating, then so, surely, does the existence of racism in a film, sexism, the wearing of fur. Or how about, if you're on the other side of the aisle, the existence of an abortion in a film, or atheism? There are thousands of aspects of American life that millions of Americans find to be dangerous influences on their children. None of that has anything to do with restricting them in films. The only thing that warrants restriction in films is that which children would not otherwise see. When smoking is fully illegal, and the majority of children have never seen it -- don't see ads for it in magazines or people doing it on the street -- then it will be appropriate for the Ratings Board to restrict its depiction in films. And not before.

Anything else leads us down a road that any self-respecting filmmaker -- or supporter of the First Amendment -- should be horrified by. Remember, the ratings system is a voluntary infringement of First Amendment rights, an uneasy bargain between the needs of parents, the needs of artists, and the needs of large media corporations to make profits. Any time we chip away at the First Amendment, we should at least do it with some reverence.

The Ratings Board's original concept -- from which it is now straying purely because of political pressure -- that ratings should help parents shield their children from that which children should not -- and don't currently -- see, is at least a valid compromise. It is essential that we keep social engineering out of that bargain, or we'll be down a steep slippery slope really quickly.

Hey, if I had my choice for social engineering, I'd declare an automatic R-rating for any movie that depicts television commercials. There's a truly dangerous influence on our children.