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J Health Commun. 2009 Dec;14(8):756-67. doi: 10.1080/10810730903295567.

Tobacco, alcohol, and other risk behaviors in film: how well do MPAA ratings distinguish content?

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  • 1Department of Psychology, St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Mary's City, Maryland 20686, USA.


To evaluate the usefulness of Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings for parental selection of appropriate films for children, the 100 top grossing movies each year from 1996 through 2004 (N = 900) were content analyzed to measure risk behaviors in each film. More restrictive MPAA ratings (R and PG-13) were associated with increased mean seconds of portrayals of tobacco use, alcohol use, and sexual content; increased frequency of violent content; and increased salience of drug use. MPAA ratings, however, did not clearly distinguish films based on tobacco or alcohol use. Fifty percent of R-rated movies contained 124 seconds or more of tobacco use, comparable with 26% of PG-13 and 17% of PG movies. Fifty percent of R-rated movies contained 162 seconds or more of alcohol use, comparable with 49% of PG-13 and 25% of PG movies. Because of the high degree of overlap in alcohol and tobacco content between rating categories, the MPAA rating system, as currently defined, is not adequate for parents who wish to limit their children's exposure to tobacco or alcohol content in movies.

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