Policy | No tobacco brand display

Policy solution | There should be no tobacco brands in the foreground or tobacco brand imagery — such as billboards — in the background of any scene in any future film, regardless of age rating.

What it will do | Tobacco imagery on screen causes young people to smoke, whether a specific brand is shown or not. But tobacco companies have a long history of exploiting films to sell their brands through cross-promotion and product placement. Keeping tobacco brands out of future films will stop US films from promoting specific brands in North America and in emerging markets around the world.

How it will work | Since 1998, the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with state Attorneys General has prohibited tobacco companies from placing their products in media accessible to young people, including films. But only domestic tobacco companies are covered. British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and Japan Tobacco, all of whom license famous American brands, are not covered by the MSA. Neither are film producers and distributors, which operate and finance their projects internationally.

Product placement for everything from cars and beer is a business worth billions of dollars to media companies. With the documented history of tobacco placement deals outside the US, and so many opportunities persisting, US film studios need to make a simple rule: no more tobacco brands on screen.

Mutual deniability? | The studios use careful legal clearance procedures to make sure they do not use anyone else’s intellectual property in a film without permission, including brand trademarks. All other consumer brands, from breakfast cereal to clothing labels, are visible on screen only if a promotion deal is in place and with the companies' express permission.

But tobacco brands are treated differently. Studios do not ask permission to show tobacco brands. The tobacco companies — normally aggressive in combating abuse of their trademarks — make no legal objection when film stars use their heavily-advertised brands. The rule seems to be, "Don't ask, don't refuse."

Summary | Tobacco companies began using the film industry to push their brands in the late 1920s. Almost a century later, film stars are still flaunting tobacco brands on screen. Persistent promotion of tobacco brands in movies will only end when studios stop permitting tobacco brands on screen. Until then, major studios are at least complicit in promoting global tobacco brands to young people worldwide.