ABC Blows Smoke at Audience on Tobacco-on-Film Study
The Disney movie â102 Dalmatiansâ should be R-rated instead of G, two anti-smoking activists insist. Not because they antagonist was a demented woman bent on turning cute puppies into a fur coat. Nope. Cruella De Vilâs real crime was smoking.
âMovies that depict smoking are the single greatest media threat to children say two prominent doctors,â ABCâs Heather Nauert warned her âGood Morning Americaâ audience.
Nauertâs October 10 story focused on two activists who call for the Motion Picture Association of America to automatically assign an R-rating to movies with any smoking in it. Yet in her story, Nauert left out how biased her sources were as well as failed to balance her story with any criticism of the doctorsâ claims.
âResearch found that in 2004, 75 percent of all G, PG, and PG-13 films showed characters smoking,â Nauert noted, pointing to a study by Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco and James Sargent, a pediatrician at Dartmouth University.
Yet in citing the studyâs authors, Nauert failed to inform viewers that Glantz and Sargent are hardly dispassionate, apolitical scientists. In fact, they are celebrated by colleagues for their anti-tobacco activism.
In a Fall 2001 âFaculty Focusâ feature for Dartmouth Medicine, Sargent was celebrated by Dartmouth Medical Schoolâs assistant director of publications Laura Stephenson Carter as a medical researcher who âdigs into hot issues without regard for how much he may upset big corporations.â
âHe just felt the world needed fixing,â Dr. Joel Alpert told Carter. Alpert served as pediatrics chair at Boston University in the 1980s when Sargent served out his medical residency there.
UC San Franciscoâs Stanton Glantz similarly has received accolades. âHe has moved the marble for tobacco control,â says John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society. "You can argue it would have happened eventually, but when you talk about a thousand deaths a day caused by tobacco, time is of the essence."
In fact, Glantz, a $500-donor to 2004 liberal Democratic presidential aspirant Howard Dean, has consistently taken a hard line on tobacco, opposing the $246-billion state tobacco settlement. Among other things, that deal struck between tobacco companies and a coalition of states attorneys general in 1997 imposed limitations on how tobacco companies advertise their products.
In an interview with public television series âFrontlineâ available at the PBS Web site, Glantz argued that âThe tobacco industry has killed 10 million Americansâ since the 1964 surgeon generalâs warning was affixed to packs of cigarettes, he complained, adding that âthe tobacco industry should not be allowed to buy their way out of their responsibility for five cents on the dollar. Or for even a hundred cents on the dollar.â
Whatâs more, even though their findings are questionable, reporter Nauert failed to bring anyone on to dispute Glantz and Sargentâs claims, such as the life-saving potential of automatically rating films with smoking in them with an R-rating.
âThat one simple change in the rules, we think we would prevent about 200,000 kids a year from starting to smoke,â Glantz insisted.
Responding to an e-mail inquiry from the Business & Media Institute, Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum scoffed that Glantzâs number âdoesnât pass the laugh test.â
âThe 200,000 figure is based on Glantz's implausible claim that most smoking (52 percent) is due to movies. That claim, in turn, is based on a 2003 study (co-authored by Sargent) that found an association between watching movies with a lot of smoking in them and experimenting with cigarettes,â Sullum noted.
âThe bottom line is that it's impossible to control for all the personality and environmental variables that make kids more likely to see movies featuring smoking (which already tend to be R-rated movies with adult themes), variables that may also make them more likely to try cigarettes,â he added.
Indeed, as WebMD Medical News writer Jeanie Lerche Davis noted in a July 6, 2004, a survey of â2,596 middle-school studentsâ by Dr. Sargent found that âIn families where no one smoked and kids were never allowed to see R-rated movies, less than 1% tried smoking.â
Nowhere in her story did Nauert explore the influence parentsâ smoking habits and supervision had over their children, nor did she mention the figure from Sargentâs 2004 survey.