WASHINGTON -- Movies and cigarettes long have gone together like Bogey and Bacall, but after years of pressure from advocacy groups, films will now get tougher ratings if their characters light up.
The Motion Picture Association of America said yesterday that smoking will be considered when rating movies and that "depictions that glamorize smoking or movies that feature pervasive smoking outside of an historic or other mitigating context may receive a higher rating."
Smoking will become a factor in decisions by the Classification and Rating Administration, along with violence, language, nudity, drug abuse and other elements.
"There is broad awareness of smoking as a unique public health concern due to nicotine's highly addictive nature, and no parent wants their child to take up the habit," said MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman. "The appropriate response of the rating system is to give more information to parents on this issue."
But the MPAA resisted calls by some anti-smoking groups to give any film with smoking a mandatory "R" rating, meaning that children under 17 would not be allowed to see it without a parent or guardian. Glickman said such a move is unnecessary.
According to a review by the ratings board, the percentage of movies with "even a fleeting glimpse of smoking" dropped from 60 percent in July 2004 to 52 percent in July 2006, he said. Of the movies with smoking, three-quarters received an "R" rating anyway for other adult themes.
Glickman noted that last year's The Devil Wears Prada featured no smoking, and that Superman repeatedly blows out Lois Lane's cigarette in Superman Returns. Both films, released last year, were rated PG-13.
Films whose ratings are affected by smoking will include explanations, such as "glamorized smoking" or "pervasive smoking." The Classification and Rating Administration, a group of 10 to 13 parents whose chairman is appointed by the MPAA, previously had taken smoking into account only when it involved someone under 18 years old.
Pressure had been building on Hollywood to do something about smoking in movies, which studies have shown make children more likely to try cigarettes. This month, 32 state attorneys general publicly called for the MPAA to give movies containing smoking an "R" rating unless they reflect the dangers of the habit or portray a historical figure.
The attorneys general based their call on recommendations from the Harvard School of Public Health. Glickman had asked the school last fall to study the effect of smoking in movies. The findings, presented to the MPAA in February, indicated that urgent action was needed.
Research published this month by the Dartmouth Medical School found that 74 percent of 534 recent movies that became box office hits contained smoking. Many of the movies were rated PG-13. In a study of German teenagers, researchers found that those who had seen the most smoking in movies - usually major Hollywood films - were nearly twice as likely to have tried cigarettes as those who saw the least amount of on-screen smoking.
Those findings mirrored a 2003 Dartmouth study that found that seeing smoking in movies nearly tripled the risk that children ages 10 to 14 would try cigarettes.
Last year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that after decades of decline, smoking in movies "increased rapidly" in the late 1990s and in 2002 was at the same level as in 1950. It cited increases in movie smoking for the leveling out of cigarette use among high school students from 2003 to 2005 after several years of significant decreases.
Smoking has been a staple in movies, from film noir of the 1940s through current blockbusters, such as Spider-Man 3, which features the cigar-puffing newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. Some of Hollywood's most iconic images feature smoking, from the cigarette between James Dean's fingers in ads for Rebel Without a Cause to the one on the end of Audrey Hepburn's elegant holder in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
As the habit has declined in popularity, advocacy groups say it has continued to appear in movies. Eight of the top 10 movies at the box office the week of April 30 promoted smoking in some way, according to the Web site smokefreemovies.org, run by Stanton A. Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California at San Francisco.
Jim Puzzanghera writes for the Los Angeles Times.