ABC Blows Smoke at Audience on Tobacco-on-Film Study

       The Disney movie ‘102 Dalmatians’ 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 Vil’s real crime was smoking.


     “Movies that depict smoking are the single greatest media threat to children say two prominent doctors,” ABC’s Heather Nauert warned her “Good Morning America” audience.


     Nauert’s 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 doctors’ claims.


     “Research found that in 2004, 75 percent of all G, PG, and PG-13 films showed characters smoking,” 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 study’s 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 “Faculty Focus” feature for Dartmouth Medicine, Sargent was celebrated by Dartmouth Medical School’s assistant director of publications Laura Stephenson Carter as a medical researcher who “digs into hot issues without regard for how much he may upset big corporations.”


     “He just felt the world needed fixing,” 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 Francisco’s Stanton Glantz similarly has received accolades. “He has moved the marble for tobacco control,” 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 “Frontline” available at the PBS Web site, Glantz argued that “The tobacco industry has killed 10 million Americans” since the 1964 surgeon general’s warning was affixed to packs of cigarettes, he complained, adding that “the 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.”


     What’s more, even though their findings are questionable, reporter Nauert failed to bring anyone on to dispute Glantz and Sargent’s claims, such as the life-saving potential of automatically rating films with smoking in them with an R-rating.


     “That one simple change in the rules, we think we would prevent about 200,000 kids a year from starting to smoke,” Glantz insisted.


     Responding to an e-mail inquiry from the Business & Media Institute, Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum scoffed that Glantz’s number “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”


     “The 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,” Sullum noted.


     “The 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,” he added.


     Indeed, as WebMD Medical News writer Jeanie Lerche Davis noted in a July 6, 2004, a survey of “2,596 middle-school students” by Dr. Sargent found that “In families where no one smoked and kids were never allowed to see R-rated movies, less than 1% tried smoking.”


    Nowhere in her story did Nauert explore the influence parents’ smoking habits and supervision had over their children, nor did she mention the figure from Sargent’s 2004 survey.