In a bid to reduce teen smoking, more than 30 attorneys general are mounting a campaign to add anti-smoking ads to the beginning of films that feature actors lighting up.
Led by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran , the attorneys general sent a letter to studio executives in mid-November, calling on them to add the anti-smoking messages to DVDs, video cassettes and other technologies that allow viewers to watch from home.
"We believe the time is now for the movie industry to take action on this issue," reads the letter. "[T]here is strong evidence that airing anti-smoking messages lessens the effects on youth of viewing depictions of smoking in the movies."
The letter was signed by attorneys general from 30 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands. Anti-smoking activists are also pushing to add these messages to theater movies.
The at-home ads would be produced and paid for the American Legacy Foundation , an anti-smoking group formed after tobacco companies and more than 40 attorneys general reached a settlement in 1998 to end a series of anti-smoking lawsuits.
Officials from the Motion Picture Association of America said they still were crafting a formal response to the letter. For now, a spokeswoman for the trade association said movie ratings provided sufficient guidelines for parents to monitor their children's exposure to smoking images.
"Those ratings are meant to provide parents with information," said Gayle Osterberg, spokeswoman for MPAA. As an example, she said regulators include depictions of youth smoking onscreen as a factor in movie ratings.
But Curran said if the studio executives do not reply, the attorneys general will request a meeting with them to press their case further. "We are trying to do this in a volunteer way," he said.
Tobacco industry officials are staying on the sidelines, at least for now. "We essentially see this as an issue between the motion picture association and the attorneys general," said John Singleton, spokesman R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company . "It is those two parties that need to come up with some agreement."
Curran said the attorneys general were prompted by a recent study that showed a correlation between movies and childhood smoking. In early November, the Dartmouth Medical School reported that researchers saw a marked increase in smoking among children who watch movie characters puffing away.
Even after taking into account other factors -- such as parents who smoke -- the study showed children who watch many movies that contain smoking are more likely to try a cigarette than the children who see only few of these movies. "Smoking in movies is a risk factor for smoking initiation among U.S. adolescents," the study concluded.
The anti-smoking campaign comes at a time when smoking rates are dipping across the country. In 2004, 44.5 million Americans smoked, down from 45.4 million in 2003 and 45.8 million in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Still, health activists warn, cigarettes remained deadly. Between 1997 and 2001, an estimated 438,000 people in the United States died prematurely each year as a result of smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the most recent CDC report.
The move by the attorneys generals comes as activists continue to push for anti-smoking laws. In November, Washington voters decided to ban smoking in all public places and most work areas, including restaurants and bars. The new law goes into effect on Dec. 8. With its vote, Washington became the ninth state to ban smoking in most workplaces.
The other states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to the American Lung Association.
Even so, Curran said more needs to be done, especially to prevent young smokers from ever picking up the habit.
"We want to make sure that kids don't start because once they're hooked, they're in it for a lifetime. And that means their life will be cut short," he said. "All we're saying is that if you have smoking (in a movie), then how about you put this at the start of the film."
The letter was signed by the attorneys general from Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Northern Mariana Islands, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.