This week, Paramount released a new animated film entitled Rango. A film full of reptiles with cowboy-type roles, strong voices and adult choices. It’s an animated film marketed to and geared for kids and families. It’s rated PG. In the television trailer I saw last night, they specifically dubbed it a “family movie.” The movie had a great opening weekend, it turns out, but not without some controversy.

The film is full of tobacco imagery, where many characters use and play with cigars and cigarettes. And as I hear it, the hero of the story swallows a cigar at one point and subsequently breathes fire in the face of a villain. Funny. Silly even, maybe. But potentially instructive, too.

As most parents know, many animated films contain content, language, jokes, and plays in plot that go right over kids’ heads. These are cleverly designed to keep parents, adolescents, grandparents, and chaperons “stuck” in the audience, entertained as well. And to keep us coming back.

Problem is, it turns out not every theme goes over childrens’ heads as we’d like to believe.

Effects of Movie Tobacco/Smoking Images on Kids:

  • Research has found that, “Celebrity use and movie images of smoking can be even more powerful than commercial advertising.” We know that a number of epidemiologic studies of adolescents have found direct evidence that viewing more movie smoking increased the likelihood of smoking initiation.
  • Rigorous research finds that grade-schoolers exposed to on-screen smoking are much more likely to start smoking as teens. Further 80% of the movies that kids age 9 through 12 saw with smoking images were rated either G, PG, or PG-13. This particular study found that exposure to smoking images as a young child even has influence on choices later in life. The researchers suggest that, “Although the peak period of smoking initiation is during adolescence, the desire to smoke may develop at much younger ages.”
  • One study has found that when “bad guys” smoke in the movies, it has more influence on kids than when the “good guys” do. It doesn’t matter if kids and teens don’t like the characters, they are influenced by both pro and antagonists. Daredevils, strong figures, bad-guys, and even “heroes” like Rango, they all hold instructive power.
  • Fortunately, in part due to efforts of Legacy, The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the AAP, and a host of other advocates, it may be getting better.  The CDC released a statement in August outlining new study results proving a reduction of tobacco images in the movies. “The number of tobacco incidents depicted in the movies during this period [ 1991 to 2009] peaked in 2005 and then progressively declined. Top-grossing movies released in 2009 contained 49% of the number of onscreen smoking incidents as observed in 2005 (1,935 incidents in 2009 versus 3,967 incidents in 2005).
  • We’re certainly not to zero. The AAP asserts that, “A surprising number of kid-rated movies feature cigars, which may be attractive to new young smokers.” Rango being a good example.
  • Many groups that advocate for children feel the film industry has an obligation to its viewers. If while reading this, you’re thinking about or worried about the freedom of film, the freedom of directors, and the need for free speech in art, consider reading this meaty transcript of a 2007 presentation from Barry Bloom, Dean of Harvard School of Public Health where he stated, “We believe that filmmakers, too, need to take the consequences of their work into account and act appropriately.”

What do you think? Do you think there should be legislation outlawing the use of cigarettes and tobacco in movies with a G, PG, or PG-13 rating? You gonna see Rango? With your kids?