Mickey Mouse is taking on Joe Camel.
Two months after the Motion Picture Association of America adopted a new ratings policy targeting tobacco use in movies, the Walt Disney Company on Wednesday announced it was banning smoking from all its family-oriented films and cutting back on the practice in its adult-themed divisions, Touchstone and Miramax.
In a letter sent to Democratic House Representative Edward Markey, Disney President and CEO Robert Iger laid out the company's revised guidelines in response to concerns that showing stars lighting up on the big screen is a threat to public health.
"We discourage depictions of cigarette smoking in Disney, Touchstone and Miramax Films," the Disney chief wrote. "In particular, we expect that depictions of cigarette smoking in future Disney branded films will be nonexistent."
Iger added that the media conglomerate will include anti-smoking public service announcements on all DVDs of future films that portray smoking. In addition, Disney will team up with theater owners to exhibit anti-smoking PSAs before screening such flicks.
However, while Iger and company sought to take a stand against the pervasiveness of cigarette smoking, calling it "a unique problem," he noted that such PSAs aren't intended to set a "precedent" for other issues.
Markey hailed Disney's move as "groundbreaking."
"I commend Bob Iger for this important commitment," the congressman said in a statement. "Now it's time for other media companies to similarly kick the habit and follow Disney's lead."
Such sentiments were seconded by anti-smoking activists, who've argued for years that Big Tobacco has used movies to push its products on teenagers, who are the most sought-after demographic among Hollywood studios.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids called the move "a potentially important step in the right direction."
"Disney is the first company to agree not to depict smoking in its films," the organization's president, Matthew L Myers, told E! Online. "The key is going to be whether it rigorously reduces tobacco use in the movies distributed by Touchstone and Miramax."
He added that he would like to "Disney serve as a catalyst for action by all of the other major studios."
"Smoking ought to be minimized in all films and films that include smoking should be rated R," said Myers. The fact is no one goes to the movies to watch someone smoke. And no director with any creative skill needs to use smoking to make a point."
According to a 2007 study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences cited by the Website Smoke Free Movies, nonsmoking teens whose favorite stars frequently smoke are 16 times more likely to take up the activity and such portrayals account for 52 percent of adolescents who start smoking.
Additional research has found that between 1999 and 2006, three studios—Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney—accounted for a combined 58 percent of youth-aimed flicks featuring smoking. (Disney's share was roughly 18 percent.)
The survey indicated over 75 percent of all PG-13 movies and 36 percent of G and PG-rated films contained tobacco, while R films fared the worse, with 88 percent featuring onscreen smoking.
With nicotine naysayers putting increasing heat on Tinseltown to change its unhealthy ways, the MPAA took action in May, announcing that adult smoking would play a larger role in how a film's rating.
MPAA chairman Dan Glickman said the organization would caution parents through the use of such phrases as "glamorized smoking" and "pervasive smoking" in its descriptions.
But he rejected anti-tobacco lobbyists' demands that an automatic R rating be doled out to any movie that featured smoking, noting that the number of films that shows stars with a cigarette dangling from their lips has decreased from 60 percent to 52 percent in the last two years.
"Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society," Glickman said at the time. "There is broad awareness of smoking as a unique public health concern due to nicotine's highly addictive nature, and no parent wants their child to take up the habit. The appropriate response of the rating system is to give more information to parents on this issue."