WASHINGTON Chief movie lobbyist Jack Valenti defended smoking in Hollywood films, but senators insisted the industry must do more to stop the practice.
"I don't believe that whatever the director does ought to incite the intervention of the government in any form," Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing yesterday. "I've got to tell you I believe it is his right to tell the story as he chooses to tell it."
Some lawmakers were dissatisfied by his answers.
A study last year found that teens who watch movies with smoking in them are much more likely to start smoking themselves. The issue has heated up in the wake of those findings, and senators from both parties said Hollywood must take more responsibility.
They urged Valenti to consider measures to decrease smoking in movies, warn parents about it by amending the rating system or run public-service announcements about the risks.
Most said they were reluctant to pass a law forcing Hollywood to take such steps, but Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said that would happen if the movie industry didn't act.
"I think the ball is in your court, Mr. Valenti," he said. "I guarantee you if something isn't done by the industry, there's certainly going to be efforts" by lawmakers.
Anti-smoking activists who testified, including Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran, said they wanted films with smoking in them to be given an 'R' rating.
Lawmakers said they'd be satisfied with a measure short of that. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., asked Valenti why movie ratings include advisory information about foul language, sexual content and violence, but can't be expanded to offer parents information about smoking in films.
Valenti cited the First Amendment and the demands of artistic freedom in opposing non-voluntary limits on smoking in movies. He also said he opposed any change to the ratings system he devised in 1968.
The information given in ratings corresponds to what the Motion Picture Association's surveys have found that parents are concerned about. If the MPAA added smoking, Valenti said, environmentalists, animal activists and other groups would want their concerns addressed in ratings, too.
Lawmakers won't get many more chances to grill the 82-year-old MPA chief, who is preparing to retire after 38 years in the job.