Governments in the UK, US and Canada are undermining tobacco prevention campaigns by subsidising top-grossing US films that contain smoking, a report by public health researchers says. The paper, published in the open access journal PLoS Medicine, argues that films with tobacco imagery should be ineligible for public funding to ensure that film subsidy programmes do not conflict with public health goals.
Earlier research shows that young people who are heavily exposed to tobacco imagery in films are about three times more likely to begin smoking as lightly exposed youths. This evidence led the World Health Organisation to recommend in 2009 that future films with scenes of smoking be given an adult content rating, to create an economic incentive for producers to leave smoking out.
The report says that this recommendation has been largely ignored in the UK, US and Canada. Moreover, the governments in these countries help underwrite many films that promote youth smoking with generous public subsidies.
The researchers looked at subsidies given to the American film industry in the UK, US and Canada. They estimate that between 2003 and 2009, £338 million of tax credits in Britain went to US-produced films with tobacco imagery.
Out of the "high-grossing" films that had their tobacco content monitored, 66 per cent featured tobacco imagery. Over half (57 per cent) of the films containing smoking were rated U, PG or 12A, and only 8 per cent were given an 18 certificate.
In the UK, films that meet criteria for being "British" receive an effective tax relief of 16 per cent against their British spend, or 20 per cent if its budget is below £20 million. According to data from the UK Film Council, 144 films produced by American companies were certified "British" between 2003 and 2009, constituting 15 per cent of "British" films but, between 2006 and 2008, these took an estimated three-quarters of the value of available UK film subsidies.
Lead author Dr Christopher Millett, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said: "In the period we looked at, the government gave £48 million a year in tax credits to American films that feature smoking, almost all of which were rated suitable for children and adolescents. By comparison, the government spent £23 million a year -- less than half as much -- on mass media anti-smoking campaigns.
"By promoting smoking in films, the government is seriously undermining tobacco control efforts. We think film subsidy programmes should be harmonised with public health goals by making films with tobacco imagery ineligible for public subsidies. This wouldn't cost anything to implement so in the current financial climate it should be an attractive policy option."
Martin Dockrell, Director of Research at Action on Smoking and Health, said: "The research is clear: the more a young person sees smoking in films the more likely they are to try smoking themselves. The effect is probably strongest in countries like the UK where conventional tobacco advertising has been stopped. Earlier this year the Government promised to look at what more could be done to tackle the role of TV and films in stimulating smoking among children. At the moment we have a film funding system that makes the problem worse, by investing millions in films made for young people that have the effect of encouraging them to smoke."
A public consultation on the rules governing EU member states' financial aid to the film sector is currently being undertaken by the European Commission. The consultation closes on 30th September 2011.
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