Volume 19 Issue 33 | Dec. 29, 2006 - Jan. 4, 2007

Sex, smokes and civil liberties at the community board

By: Skye H. McFarlane

An anti-tobacco resolution went up in smoke at Community Board 1’s monthly meeting Dec. 19, after a surprise debate on smoking, sex and civil liberties.

Earlier in the month, the Youth and Education Committee had voted unanimously to pass a resolution supporting the statewide youth group Reality Check in its Smoke Free Movies initiative, which seeks to limit tobacco use in Hollywood films. The resolution was to be sent to major film studios as well as the New York City Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting.

Smoke Free Movies is a national project run by University of California, San Francisco Professor Stanton Glantz. Because Glantz’s research has shown a strong correlation between exposure to characters smoking in movies and favorable views about smoking among adolescents, Smoke Free Movies promotes four main goals, which Reality Check has adopted in its own fight against tobacco on screen. Smoke Free Movies encourages its disciples to seek supportive resolutions from local civic bodies, such as community boards, city councils and parent teacher associations.

“…[a] resolution is a good way to educate young people and parents, engage local organizations and build public consensus,” reads a set of instructions on the Smoke Free Movies Web site. The site also offers a sample resolution, which is very similar, although not identical, to the resolution passed by the Youth Committee.

In particular, the resolution threw its support behind the four goals, which are to force every movie that depicts tobacco use to carry an “R” rating, unless the smoking in the film is necessary for historical accuracy or used to demonstrate the dangers of smoking; to require anti-smoking ads before any movie showing tobacco use; to stop showing tobacco brand names in films; and to require producers to certify that no one involved in a particular production received money, goods or services in exchange for displaying tobacco products in the film. This sort of paid product placement, a common marketing tool for many industries, was made off-limits to “big tobacco” in the landmark 1998 lawsuit known as the Master Settlement Agreement.

The resolution seemed like a shoo-in until C.B. 1 member Bill Love argued that Reality Check’s number one goal constitutes censorship. Because an “R” rating restricts the potential audience for a film and typically reduces the amount of money a movie can make, Love argued that such a regulation would stifle creative expression, particularly for independent filmmakers.

“And this censorship is sponsored by the government, which makes it worse,” Love said, saying that Reality Check is funded and run by New York State.

New York State does not run the program but it does approve the funding to the youth-led group. The group’s money comes out of New York’s share of the Master Settlement Agreement, which collects mandatory annual payments form the tobacco companies.

C.B. 1 member Jeff Galloway countered that as a civil libertarian, he objects to the movie rating system in general. But with the system already in place, he said, people might as well use it to make a value judgment on the dangers of tobacco. If a movie can be rated “R” because it portrays too much sex or violence, Galloway argued, then things that the community deems equally harmful should receive the same rating.

“I think it’s more dangerous to show kids smoking on T.V. than it is to show them sex on T.V. After all, sex, when used properly, is a good thing,” said Galloway, sparking laughter in the audience.

“What about smoking after sex?” quipped fellow board member Linda Belfer, injecting additional levity into the discussion.

Eventually, the board settled down and took a vote. By one of the closest margins in recent memory, the Reality Check resolution was defeated15 to 14, with five abstentions. Board members continued the debate well after the meeting ended, comparing the discussion to other issues that pit public health against personal freedoms, such as New York City’s bans on indoor smoking and trans fats.

Reality Check’s New York City chapter chairperson did not respond to an email request for comment.

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