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December 20, 2012

Shareowners Address Smoking in Films
    by Robert Kropp

Despite recent findings by the US Surgeon General that exposure to on-screen smoking causes children to smoke, depictions of tobacco use in youth-rated films continue to increase, prompting calls from investors for an R rating for films that depict smoking. -- Negative screening—the practice of avoiding the inclusion of companies from certain industry sectors in portfolios—remains the most common form of sustainable investment in the US, according to the most recent Trends Report from US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.

The practice makes perfect sense—why, for example, would an investor concerned about public health and children's rights want to invest in tobacco companies?—but it can also leave sustainable investors with limited influence on corporate behavior. However, opportunities can present for calling companies to account for their contributions to serious public health issues such as tobacco use by children.

It's doubtful that many members of either As You Sow and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) invest in tobacco companies, but the investor networks have taken another tack in addressing smoking by children and adolescents: the increasing depiction of smoking in youth-oriented films.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depictions of tobacco use in youth-rated films increased by 34% between 2010 and 2011, leading the Centers to join the World Health Organization in calling for an R rating for films that depict tobacco use. This year, the US Surgeon General published a report finding that exposure to on-screen smoking causes children to smoke, and repeated the call for an R rating.

This year alone, 60 top-grossing films containing smoking imagery have been released, 40% of them rated PG or PG-13.

"Despite the concern expressed by the nation’s leading medical and law enforcement authorities, smoking in movies rated appropriate for kids has increased," said Michael Passoff, Senior Strategist at As You Sow.

ICCR members have joined the effort by submitting shareowner resolutions at Time Warner, Comcast, and CBS, calling on the corporate boards of media companies to voluntarily give films that depict smoking an R rating. The only exceptions would be for films that portray historical figures that used tobacco, and films that depict tobacco's negative effects.

"The nation's doctor has concluded there isn't just a connection, there is a causal relationship between children's exposure to smoking on screen and their starting to smoke," Reverend Michael Crosby, ICCR's Tobacco Program Coordinator, said. "This makes the movie companies potentially culpable."

Members of the investor networks intend to file additional resolutions for the 2013 proxy season with Disney, News Corp, Sony, and Viacom. The campaign also calls for anti-smoking trailers preceding films that depict smoking; certification by media companies that no payoffs were received from tobacco companies for depicting tobacco use; and an end to the identification of tobacco brands on screen.

"A mandatory R rating for smoking would create a strong market incentive for producers and studios to leave tobacco out of the movies that children see most," said Corinne Bendersky, Program Manager, As You Sow.

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