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Disney Mouse Takes On Smokin' Joe Camels

Disney Cigarettes
Disney Cigarettes

The "Mouse" is fighting Joe Camel and coming out against the tobacco industry. Just moments ago DisneyCEO Bob Iger announced the company's new commitment to remove cigarette smoking from future Disney branded films. Disney made this news public not in Hollywood, but on the national stage of Congress. Iger declaring his company's new commitment in a letter to House Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), who last month held a hearing on smoking in the media, asking media companies to join the anti-smoking effort.

This issue has been in the news since the American Medical Association urged the MPAAto give movies with smoking an R rating earlier this year when the ratings board was in the process of updating its system. This would effectively push filmmakers to reduce smoking in their films since an R rating generally brings in a smaller audience than a PG-13 (why not try to maximize your audience). The MPAA hasn't made any bold moves in this direction--though they are saying they take it into account--but now Congress, and now Disney, are picking up the cause.

Update and Clarification: The MPAA isn't saying they'll give all movies with smoking an R, but they are moving very much in that direction. For the first time the organization is saying it now considers all smoking (not just underage smoking) in its rating system. It considers depictions that glamorize smoking or feature pervasive smoking outside a historical context "R" rated material, and its analysis of pervasive and glamorized smoking is included in film descriptions for parents. Taking those ratings guidelines a step further--and maybe its because Disney never wants an R rating --Disney is aiming to eliminate smoking entirely.

Disney's concern, is of course the fact that it's audience is so young: Representative Markey pointing out "the vast majority of smokers begin smoking before their 18th birthday". And those young smokers are of course Disney customers. So what about all those Disney DVDs out there with characters--animated and not--lighting up? (Don't forget that a greater percentage of Disney's revenue comes from DVDs than from a theatrical release). Iger says they'll put Public Service Announcements on those DVDs.

Why the dramatic apology and promise to Congress? Well, here's a comparison--FAT is the new tobacco, the new demonized industry, blamed by litigous customers and frustrated legislators. And of course McDonalds is a target, so it's responded with both healthy alternatives, and clear cut nutrition information, so the chain doesn't have to take responsiblity for America's obesity problem. But tobacco is still the old tobacco. Rather than wait until Congress draws the connection between the young smoking age and images of smoking in decades' old Mickey Mouse cartoons, Disney is abdicating any responsibility. And wisely so. Plus, Disney's niche is "family friendly"-- which means they're not doing many of the historical film noirs that might suffer without cigarettes.

Will the other movie studios follow? Those like DreamWorks Animation which focus on that same family niche are likely to. Here's the link to the Disney letter.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.