If anti-smoking activists have their way, just one actor lighting a cigarette in a movie would merit an “R” rating.

Citing a new study linking Hollywood to cigarette sales, advocates wish to use tobacco as a factor in determining movie ratings, along with violence, sex and language. The study, published March 12 in the health journal Tobacco Control, said cigarette companies aggressively pursued tobacco use in films during the 1980s and “undertook an extensive campaign to hook Hollywood on tobacco by providing free cigarettes to actors.”

This campaign, according to the study, helped shape the current cigarette abuse seen by adolescents.  “What it confirms is what we have suspected for quite some time that when stars light up in films…that can have a powerful influence on people,” Curtis Mekemson, study co-author, told the Associated Press.

Under the study’s proposal, anti-smoking advertisements would run before any film depicting smoking, there would be no tobacco brand identification and the movie would receive an “R” rating.

“Any movies with any kind of pro-tobacco imagery, I would give an ‘R’ rating,” said Stanton Glantz, anti-smoking activist and University of California at San Francisco professor. “It’s not censorship. If people want to make a film with the f-word and a lot of sex, they get an ‘R’ rating. Smoking should be the same.”

The study also criticized tobacco companies for aggressive product-placement tactics in the 1980s, saying many tobacco companies paid individual actors for smoking their cigarette brand in movies.

The lobbyist organization, Smoke Free Movies, agrees.

“Big tobacco companies know just how powerful movies are,” Smoke Free Movies Web site noted. The organization claims Marlboro, Philip Morris’ top-selling brand, has been featured in at least 28 of Hollywood’s top-grossing films in the past decade, despite the fact that the tobacco industry voluntarily agreed to ban the practice of paying to place their brands in movies.

Philip Morris is not the only one, according to the site. Brown and Williamson paid Sylvester Stallone $500,000 in 1983 to use its cigarettes in at least five movies.

Despite the “boos” from anti-smoking activists, filmmakers argue that sometimes smoking can’t be avoided in films.

“In the Bedroom” director Todd Field told the Los Angeles Times, “When people grieve, they fall back on old habits…”  Russell Crowe doesn’t start smoking in “A Beautiful Mind” until his character descends into schizophrenia, and Diane Lane, in the upcoming “Unfaithful,” lights up after she starts her extramarital affair.

Some filmmaking companies frown on the use of smoking, although none prohibit it altogether. Warner Brothers told the Times it discourages filmmakers from hero characters who smoke, although the final decision is left up to the filmmaker.

Universal uses similar tactics. “We don’t have any edicts, but we ask our filmmakers to avoid having good or bad characters smoke in a film,” studio chairwoman Stacey Snider told the Times.

Despite these efforts, research has shown that non-smoking adolescents whose favorite film stars frequently smoke on screen are 16 times more likely to have positive attitudes about smoking in the future, said Smoke Free Movies.

Tobaccofree.org is also devoted to unraveling the truth about smoking in movies.

Even Hollywood is showcasing its own take on smoking in films in the Hollywood Entertainment Museum. A new exhibit called “Smoke, Lies, and Videotape” focuses on how the entertainment industry uses smoking products to create images and convey moods, according to Hollywood.com.

Still, authors of the study are not happy. “With an ‘R’ rating,” Glantz said, “a lot of the smoking would simply vanish.”

Melissa Giorgi is a senior at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

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