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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Tobacco Opponent Takes on Movie Industry

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Saying 1 million young lives are at stake, a Bay Area activist filed a class action against six major movie studios and the Motion Picture Association of America to try to stop children from being exposed to tobacco products in movies.

First Amendment notwithstanding, Timothy Forsyth sued Disney, Paramount, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros., the MPAA and the National Association of Theatre Owners on Feb. 25 in Federal Court.

Forsyth, of Hayward, wants an injunction ordering the defendants to give any film that depicts smoking an "R" rating, unless it accurately reflects the dangers of smoking, and required to certify that no one involved in the production process was given anything in exchange for using or showing tobacco products on screen. He also wants more than $5 million in damages.

"According to the scientific evidence, if defendants continue their current rating of films with tobacco imagery, defendants' conduct will kill approximately one million children," the complaint states."

Forsyth claims that the MPAA and the major Hollywood studios have known since 2003 that exposing youth to tobacco imagery in films rated G, PG, and PG-13 is one a major cause of children becoming addicted to nicotine.

Health experts and organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, have recommended that smoking in films targeted at youth be eliminated "so as to substantially and permanently reduce the deadly physical harm these films pose to young audiences," Forsyth says in the 59-page lawsuit.

In 2007, he says, 31 state attorneys general wrote letters to the MPAA and the major studios demanding immediate action to "eliminate the depiction of tobacco smoking from films accessible to children and youth. There is simply no justification for further delay."

But since 2012, thousands of films depicting smoking have been deemed suitable for children, causing more than 1.1 million children under 17 to become addicted to nicotine and the premature death of 360,000 people, Forsyth says in the complaint.

The lawsuit details the long history of tobacco companies and the film industry, dating back to 1927. In the 1950s, the money moved to television, until cigarette ads were banned in 1970. Tobacco companies then began paying for product placement in movies.

From 2003 to 2015, the top 1,870 films featured 34,600 scenes with tobacco use and less than half were rated R," according to the complaint.

"Tobacco imagery was featured in half of all top-grossing films released in the four years 2012-2015," the complaint states, while citing numerous studies showing the harm this does.

"Films can provide an opportunity to convert a deadly consumer product into a cool, glamorous and desirable lifestyle necessity. ... The presentation of smoking in films does not reflect reality. ... Because smoking on screen is vivid and because young people see so many films so often, films are the most effective method currently available for the tobacco industry to recruit new smokers," the complaint states, citing a study by the World Health Organization.

"Defendants, however, have repeatedly assigned, and continue to assign, their seal of approval and certification that films intended for children under the age of seventeen are suitable and appropriate for children under the age of seventeen. Despite defendants' knowledge of the authoritative, peer reviewed, scientific evidence that the exposure to tobacco imagery in youth rated films has caused, and will continue to cause, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of seventeen in the United States to become addicted to tobacco every year."

Chris Ortman, vice president of corporate communications for the Motion Picture Association of America, said he could not comment on this case because the MPAA has not been served with it yet. But he said the MPAA was confident the courts would recognize the MPAA's right to provide information to parents, who can make the appropriate movie-going decisions for their children.

"For almost 50 years, the MPAA's voluntary film ratings system has provided parents with advance information about the content of movies to help them determine what's appropriate for their children. This system has withstood the test of time because, as American parents' sensitivities change, so too does the rating system," Ortman wrote in an email.

"Elements such as violence, language, drug use, and sexuality are continually re-evaluated through surveys and focus groups to mirror contemporary concern and to better assist parents in making the right family viewing choices. And since 2007, the ratings have taken into account depictions of tobacco use; accompanying descriptors provide additional information on this subject."

Forsyth says in the lawsuit that the issue hit him when he took his 12- and 13-year-old children to the movies. He is the son of Bay Area activist Jim Forsyth, who died at 85 in 2013 after championing affordable child care, immigration reform, farmworkers' rights and a nuclear freeze.

He seeks class certification, an injunction, and damages for fraudulent misrepresentation, private and public nuisance, negligent misrepresentation, false advertising, unfair competition, and negligence.

He is represented by Jeffrey Keller with Keller Grover of San Francisco.

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