British Board of Film Classification

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Should the BBFC butt out?

Date 06/08/2009

Liverpool County Council is currently exploring a new proposal – to override BBFC classifications in regard to films that contain smoking and pass all such works 18

Pressure group SmokeFree Liverpool are calling for an adult rating to be placed on all films featuring smoking as they believe children who witness smoking in films are more likely to experiment and start smoking themselves.

Under the terms of the Licensing Act 2003 the City Council could rate any film 18 regardless of the rating given by the BBFC. Andy Hull, the city's head of public protection and chair of SmokeFree Liverpool, said an adult rating on movies that depict smoking will reduce the number of young people lighting up.

So how does the BBFC treat smoking in films? After all it is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under 18 years old, and illegal to pass adverts for tobacco products, so why should films containing smoking be classified at a lower category?

Like its treatment of all classification issues the BBFC looks to public opinion and expectation, expert views, current research and the law. Some anti-smoking campaigners have been very clear in stating their views to the BBFC through letter writing and other campaigns. They have suggested various responses including banning any sight of smoking below 12A, 15 or 18.

Government research published in March 2005, for example, suggests that smoking increases sharply with age between the ages of 11 (1% of whom are regular smokers) and 15 (25% of whom are regular smokers). UK research from 2000 on schoolchildren and smoking suggests that the most critical age for smoking take up is 11 plus (when social pressures from the peer group and the desire to find and establish an identity are particularly strong).

Research into the affects of watching smoking in films, like much research in the ‘effects’ debate, is divided. Some (controversial) US research suggests that the more smoking young people see in films, the more likely they are to smoke, although the link is not proven.

Smoking is a legal activity in the UK, and a part of culture, albeit restricted by various laws. Films and other works of art often seek to emulate and reflect time and place (one of the exceptions to the ban on smoking in the work place in England is for actors in stage - actors in England are exempt from the ban during performance if and when smoking is integral to the plot).

During consultations with the public for the latest BBFC Guidelines (published in June 2009) smoking was perceived as a concern particularly where children were concerned but there was no call for a ban on sight of smoking in films. There was a desire for parents to be warned about smoking in films to allow cinema goers to make an informed choice about the films they, and particularly their children, see.

The BBFC’s Guidelines now state:

"Where smoking, alcohol abuse or substance misuse feature to a significant extent in works which appeal to children, this will normally be indicated in the Consumer Advice and / or Extended Classification Information. Classification decisions will also take into account any promotion or glamorisation of such activities."

In line with this, the greatest area of concern when works glamorise or promote smoking is in films rated below 15. When a film, DVD or video game includes smoking examiners must note and discuss it like any other issue considering:

  • whether the work, taken as a whole, could be seen to be glamorising or actively promoting smoking?
  • whether the work is aimed at children or has a significant appeal to a child audience?

Other issues considered include whether characters smoking are role models, are played by popular performers with particular links to child audiences, whether there is likely to be strong identification with the character smoking, whether the storyline is positive, negative or neutral about smoking.

Factors such as the likely appeal of the work, whether there is a suggestion of product placement, the frequency of smoking scenes and the prominence placed on it, the age of the work and the time and place it is representing are also borne in mind.

For example, if a work has limited appeal to children but features a lot of incidental smoking reflecting both the time it was made, the historical setting of the piece, smoking scenes may be mentioned in either the short form of BBFCinsight or expanded version found on the website. Casablanca, which was recently resubmitted to the BBFC is a good example of this.

 

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