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A rating that's not up in smoke

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Today's PG-13 rating is a joke. A cigar-chomping Hugh Jackman brutally slices and dices foes in X2: X-Men United, chain-smoking stars speak in nonstop sexual innuendo in Down With Love--both PG-13 films, and the list goes ever on. Does the Motion Picture Association of America, which enforces the rating system, even watch these films? Who is there to trust?

Meet the American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, an 86-year-old nonprofit dedicated to clean air, healthy lungs and eradicating lung disease. The great enemy is, of course, tobacco, and the damsels in distress are the many young American smokers-to-be. The organization and one of its programs, called STARS, have come up with a new movie rating system, after studying the amount of smoking in Top 10 films over the course of the past year. Yes, another study.

Popular science seems to have become an endless series of new and contradictory studies (red meat and alcohol are good for you ... or are they?). Our cholesterol levels and personal tastes are poker chips in this new form of competition, with every study vying for a spot on CNN's Headline News or USA Today's Life section.

But the surprising results found by STARS can hold their weight and more. They found that 106 out of the 145 movies that landed in the weekly box office Top 10 featured tobacco use. More importantly, 82 percent of all PG-13 films (a whopping 63 movies) featured tobacco use--a higher percentage than that of the R-rated films, of which only 76 percent (34 films) featured tobacco. For years, critics have railed against the film industry for depicted graphic violence in R-rated films--but what about such a dominant number of films fit for 13 year-olds featuring smoking? STARS reports that moviegoers saw an average of 10 depictions of tobacco use per hour during PG-13 movies.

"I think this is a perverse problem of the film industry," says Dr. Adam Goldstein, an associate professor of family medicine at UNC and an author of a 1999 study about the presence of smoking in G-rated films, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "It doesn't reflect the culture of society. 75 percent of users in reality are trying to quit. If people were depicted that way, or shown to be bothered by the smoke, it would make a huge difference."

STARS also found that the stars of Top 10 movies smoked in 55 percent of them, alarming when considering that most kids view matinee idols as role models. In a scene in X2, Jackman's Wolverine is challenged about his cigar habit--at which point he defiantly snuffs out the stogie in his palm. "It's frankly disgraceful," Goldstein says.

All this comes on the heels of a recent study at Dartmouth Medical School that determined that tobacco use in movies triples the odds that a teen viewer will try smoking--and when a teen sees a favorite star smoking on screen, he or she is 16 times more likely to view smoking positively.

To which end the STARS project has devised a new rating system for films, based on the perceived tobacco message, the amount of smoking and other factors. Movies are rated anywhere from Pink Lung (very clean) to Black Lung (watch out). Thirty-nine percent of movies received the Black Lung rating, many for featuring smoking by minors or pregnant women.

Last year, Sacramento-Emigrant Trails and STARS began lobbying the MPAA to include tobacco use in its rating system, something also recommended in Goldstein's 1999 study. Several other health organizations have since joined the cause, which is picking up steam. In the mean time, you can find all current smoking ratings, from Pink to Black Lung, as well as more information about STARS and opportunities to write to the film studios, at www.scenesmoking.com.

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