Some kid movies are kicking the smoking habit. 

When a movie hero strikes a match and lights a cigarette, it means something.

Back in 1992, New York Times film critic Aljean Harmetz analyzed smoking in the movies, and she noticed that whoever controls the cigarette dominates the room. 

In a Street Car Named Desire, Marlon Brando doesn't have to say a thing, when he pinches a cigarette between two fingers, there's menace. By 1991 in the movie Cape Fear, when Robert De Niro throws back his head back and laughs loudly in a quiet movie theater--all the while puffing a cigar--that's a power play, and sinister.

In the movie Fight Club, the narrator—a repressed everyman named Jack--is unnerved and haunted by the mysterious chain smoker Marla. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Bette Davis and Gary Cooper got payola to smoke on film, but things began to change in 1998. That's when a lawsuit forced the tobacco industry to stop paying for product placements. After that the average smoking scene in the movies got shorter.

"Before the master settlement agreement was signed, it was about a minute and 20 seconds, immediately, within a year, it dropped to 20 seconds," said health researcher James Sargent, professor of Biomedical Data Science
 and Community and Family Medicine
 at Dartmouth College.

Push from public health

Sargent is the researcher who first showed that the more adolescents watch movies with smoking, the more likely they are to start smoking. In 2005, he followed up that research with a study of 6,500 kids age 10 to 14. The conclusion was the same.

He says if a film gets an 'R' rating for dropping the "F-bomb" twice, "they ought to rate it for something that could get them addicted for the rest of their lives and have economic consequences that are profound and ultimately kill them," Sargent said.

When he was young, smoking was everywhere in the movies and in the commercials before the movies.

"I remember Clint Eastwood used to smoke those little cigars, that was really cool to me," he said.

Today a film character who smokes is often on the fringe somehow, maybe even a cautionary tale, but as a boy, Sargent says he admired the Marlboro man.

Health researcher Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, doesn't mind if you call him a crusader. He's been uncovering tobacco-industry secrets since the 1970s. And in the 1990s he started buying full-page ads in Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and other movie-industry magazines to start a conversation. His campaign is Smoke Free Movies.

Glantz says filmmakers who show smoking in kids movies are selling cigarettes to children.

"If they're making a product which is being sold to children, [the product] shouldn't be making the children sick, and that's what they are doing, they are doing it just as much as if they were putting arsenic in the popcorn," Glantz said. 

Researchers use different methods to measure smoking on film, but Glantz says about half of the smoking 'occurrences' that young people see on film come from G-, PG-, and PG-13 rated films. During the slumber party in the movie Grease, when Frenchy and the girls show Sandy how to exhale—that's one instance of smoking. At the end of the movie, when transformed bad-girl Olivia-Newton John throws her cigarette to the ground, that's a different occurrence. (But in the 2016 Grease LIVE television remake, no cigarettes were shown at all.)

"The CDC has estimated that on-screen smoking in films is going to lead to the premature deaths of a million kids who are alive today," Glantz said.

Dan Romer from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania also studies the influence of media and entertainment on kids, but over the years he's taken a more moderate stance on smoking in the movies.

He said Stan Glantz' push to get smoking to zero in kids movies is a 'noble cause' but probably not going to happen.

The health advocates who want to give smoking films an "R" are offering two exceptions: 1) when the film depicts a real-life character who smoked, such as President Abraham Lincoln--or when the negative effects of smoking are starkly depicted in the film, such as lung cancer.

An "R" rating cuts into a movie's potential box-office sales. So to avoid that financial hit, Romer says the internal censors at the movie studios often try to eliminate smoking scenes unless they are "absolutely creatively important to the story." He says the big studios are pretty good at policing themselves.

And the Motion Picture Association of America rating for PG13 and R movies includes content descriptions that specify the things parents might be worried about—including smoking.

Last year, Disney announced that starting in 2016, it won't depict cigarettes at all in its kid-rated films from Walt Disney, Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar. But critics say that pledge omits Disney's Touchstone label, which produces PG-13 films.

But there's disagreement on how far to take the fight to stamp out smoking on the big screen.

When hardcore colleagues complained about smoking images in the cartoon movie "Rango," about an animated lizard, the Annenberg team reviewed the film looking for cigarettes.

"We watched it the first time, we couldn't see it. We watched it the second time, and there's one scene, with what looked like a frog smoking a cigar, and it was like, first of all, ridiculous, second of all, it was hard to see. And to us, you know ... eh ... you know, we're not going to fall on our sword over something like that," Romer said.

Romer says smoking in films has shaped behavior and what society considers normal and proper, but it works the other way too, society's changing attitudes shape what filmmakers decide to put in the movies.

Smoking in society and on the silver screen has decreased in the last 10 to 20 years.

"What's happened is that within our culture now, smoking a cigarette has become pretty unpopular, so that even adolescents don't think it's that smart to do," Romer said.

Tobacco on trial

In California, the fight over smoking in the movies is going to court.

The father of teenagers Timothy Forsyth says his kids shouldn't have been exposed to smoking in the movies. He's suing the film studios and says the Motion Picture Association of America misleads parents by giving PG or PG-13 ratings to films that include smoking.

Some pop culture critics say "In the fight against tobacco, advocates shouldn't send free speech up in smoke."

And the movie association is fighting back—on First Amendment grounds—and in a written statement a spokesman said the MPAA system reflects the "current values of the majority of American parents."

"For almost 50 years, the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), the voluntary film ratings system administered by the MPAA, has provided parents with advance information about the content of movies to help them determine what is appropriate for their children. This system has withstood the test of time because, as American parents' sensitivities change, so too does the rating system. Elements such as violence, language, drug use, and sexuality are continually re-evaluated through surveys and focus groups to mirror contemporary concern and to better assist parents in making the right family viewing choices," the statement said.

A hearing on the lawsuit is set for Friday, Oct. 28 in federal court in San Francisco.