Court Dismisses Lawsuit Over Smoking In Movies

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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A federal judge has dismissed a case brought by a California father who claimed that smoking in movies rated G, PG, and PG-13 led to children becoming smokers.

As reported by The Wrap,

Timothy Forsyth filed a lawsuit in California court in February alleging that the Motion Picture Association of America, several major studios and the National Association of Theater Owners have known since at least 2003 that showing smoking in films without R ratings “is one of the major causes of children becoming addicted to nicotine.”

Surgeon General’s Report

Forsyth, the father of children age 12 and 13, cited a 2012 Surgeon General report that “exposure of children to tobacco imagery in films causes children to smoke.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that:

Watching movies that include smoking causes young people to start smoking. The more smoking young people see on screen, the more likely they are to start smoking.

Fifty-nine percent of PG-13 movies released between 2002 and 2015 showed smoking and other uses of tobacco.

The Surgeon General had concluded that “an industrywide standard to rate movies with tobacco incidents R could result in reductions in youth smoking.”

Forsyth argued that a film with “tobacco imagery” should be rated R, unless it

clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use or is necessary to represent the smoking of a real historical figure who actually used tobacco.

He also sought more than $20 million in damages.

Movie Ratings

The Motion Picture Association of America (where I used to work, by the way) is a trade association for the major US movie studios. Among other things, the MPAA issues ratings on movies

with the intent to provide parents information concerning the content of those motion pictures, to aid them in determining the suitability of individual motion pictures for viewing by their children.

Ratings are handled by the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration (“CARA”).


The defendants sought to dismiss the case pursuant to California’s anti-SLAPP statute.

A “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP) is defined as a lawsuit intended to censor speech or intimidate or silence critics by making them defend themselves in court. Such lawsuits are prohibited in many states.

The judge granted a motion to dismiss the Forsyth case, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the movie rating system was “pure commercial speech” not protected by the First Amendment.

The judge noted that the movie ratings involve speech because they indicate that in the opinion of CARA a film warrants a certain level of parental caution:

CARA holds First Amendment rights to express its opinions that are reflected in the ratings system. Even focusing on the certification marks alone, that right precludes the basic relief Forsyth seeks in this action—forcing CARA to express different or additional opinions. 

Also, noted the judge, films are not just commercial products but are “expressive works” and “plainly entitled to full First Amendment protection.”

The judge also rejected the plaintiff’s misrepresentation claim, saying

Forsyth insists that a rating less stringent than R is a representation that “the film is suitable for children under seventeen unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.” The ratings plainly make no such representations. Rather, the PG and PG-13 ratings caution parents that material in such movies may be inappropriate for children.

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