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Rate Smoking Movies 'R'Certify No Pay-Offs Require Anti-Tobacco Ads Stop Identifying Brands  

Certify No Pay-Offs

The U.S. tobacco industry has a documented record of secret payola and product placement in Hollywood. After the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on smoking and lung cancer, smoking in Hollywood movies started to lose its glamour. The tobacco companies’ systematic payoffs, starting in the late 1970s, successfully countered this effect. More important, despite 1989 assurances to Congress that Big Tobacco would stop “brand placement” in movies, smoking in movies rapidly increased starting around 1990.

Besides deals with producers and studios, once-secret documents show that tobacco companies have paid to have actors smoke or to show cigarette and cigar logos. They have delivered free cigarettes and cigars, even cigarette machines, to have them used in movies. Less obviously, they have encouraged production designers and prop people to set out cigarettes and other smoking paraphenalia. They have even paid for movie crew jackets, rather than paying a producer directly.

They already deny product placement…

Paid tobacco product placement was specifically barred by the Master Settlement Agreement between major tobacco companies and state attorneys general in 1998. But rumors of “arms length” deals persist, from the sophisticated to the petty. Among them:

  • Advertising barter deals and “premiums” involving other media company properties (magazines, TV)
  • Legitimate product placement contracts (e.g., for a car brand) made contingent on displaying a tobacco brand
  • Film financing from overseas venture capital partnerships or routed through offshore entities; credit facilities and loan guarantees
  • Vehicle and house leases during production; subsidized production services and promotional travel
  • Lifetime supplies of cigarettes or cigars (free merchandise and travel are common Hollywood perks)

With so many smoking scenes in movies indistinguishable from paid product placement, and paid placement of other products a $1.25 billion business in movies alone, audiences are justified in suspecting that Hollywood is not doing for free what it used to do for money.

…so why not tell the audience so?

Best way to clear up the mystery? Producers should have no objection to posting a straightforward certification in the closing credits of any movie with smoking. Studios and insurance companies already require producers to certify that rights to all the material in a movie, from the story to the soundtrack to brand names, have been “cleared.” Why are tobacco brands the only exception?

Making a sworn certification would also give producers an incentive to make sure that everyone on the production team knows that tobacco industry favors are off-limits, even when delivered through elaborate “deniable” cut-outs, as the tobacco industry has a history of doing.

It would also put all independent and studio producers on a level playing field, rather than letting the less scrupulous get away, literally, with murder.

Where are we now?

In 2008, Time Warner began inserting the following strong and unequivocal language in the end credits of select movies, in theaters and DVD:

No person or entity associated with this film received payment or anything of value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of tobacco products.

While it has not disclosed details, Warner Bros. informed Smoke Free Movies that this declaration is backed up by written agreements with partners in its financing, production and distribution chains.

On occasion, General Electric (Universal) has included the following statement in the end credits of recent youth-rated films with smoking:

The depictions of tobacco smoking contained in this film are based solely on artistic consideration and are not intended to promote tobacco consumption. The Surgeon General has determined that there are serious health risks associated with smoking and with secondhand smoke.

Universal’s statement does not deny considerations are involved in tobacco depictions. The text is similar to a statement in the end credits of MGM/UA’s License to Kill (1989), whose producers had secretly been paid $350,000 by Philip Morris’ advertising agency, Leo Burnett, to highlight PM’s Lark brand in the film. That studio, too, saw fit to cite the Surgeon General, perhaps because the US Congress had launched an investigation into tobacco product placement just before the film was released.

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