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Who bankrolls Hollywood’s kid-rated movies with smoking? Today, taxpayers in at least fourteen countries underwrite 20-25% of these films’ production cost with public subsidies, usually tax credits.

Movie studios shop around the world for the biggest subsidy. In 2010, taxpayers handed $800 million to producers of top-grossing movies. $450 million went to Hollywood movies with smoking — and American taxpayers shelled out $288 million (64%) of that.

Public officials urge film subsidy reform

In early 2011, Los Angeles County public health director Dr. Jonathan Fielding and Dr. Michael Ong, chair of California's legislature-mandated tobacco oversight panel, each wrote the California Film Commission asking that future films with smoking be ineligible for taxpayer subsidies. (February 23, 2011 media advisory)

"Any benefit that tobacco-related subsidies for films might have for California's interstate competitiveness must be balanced against proven, catastrophic 'collateral damage' to young audiences and long-term health costs to the state," Dr. Fielding stated in his letter.

"It is unconscionable that one state program threatens to undermine our state's public health achievements and goals, our investment in tobacco prevention, and our savings in health care costs, particularly in a time of declining state revenues," Dr. Ong wrote in his original letter.

In April 2011, Washington State’s Attorney General, Rob McKenna, petitioned to amend the state’s film subsidy rules to “provide that productions with tobacco imagery or reference will not be eligible for funding.” The AG explained to the Director of Washington State’s Department of Commerce: “Any subsidy of entertainment products that influence kids to smoke runs counter to Washington State’s own strong public policy of reducing and preventing youth tobacco addiction.”

The Legislature subsequently ended the subsidy program.

Broad consensus to stop subsidizing smoking movies

In July 2011, the US CDC noted that states could “ harmonize their state movie subsidy programs with their tobacco-control programs by limiting eligibility for subsidies to tobacco-free movies.” States face no legal obstacles in specifying what kind of content qualifies for subsidy. Almost all disqualify pornography. California disqualifies animated feature films, wedding videos, reality and news programming, political commercials and more.

Major national organizations have endorsed the CDC recommendation, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, American Medical Association, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, American Public Health Association, and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Your state can take direct action against movie smoking

States subsidizing top-grossing movies with smoking, 2008-10
New Mexico
New York

North Carolina Pennsylvania
South Carolina

Ten states (bold) spent more on these movies than on tobacco prevention programs.

While three dozen states offer millions to movie producers (map), in 2010 some fifteen states subsidized the kind of big-budget movies that deliver more than 90% of tobacco impressions (table). Two-thirds of those states spent more on Hollywood movies with smoking than on their own tobacco prevention programs.

In August 2011, a bill to extend California's five-year film subsidy program (AB 1069) was introduced in the state legislature. Advised by the California Film Commission that disqualifying films with tobacco is a legislative matter, California's Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee (TEROC) acted on the CDC's recommendation by urging the legislature to amend the bill to make film and television productions with tobacco content ineligible for taxpayer support. TEROC told the legislature and other state policymakers that California had spent at least $50 million, so far, to subsidize Hollywood feature films with smoking. TEROC's position on AB 1069: "Oppose Unless Amended" (letter). The American Heart Association, American Lung Association and American Cancer Society wrote the bill's author urging him to amend the bill to make smoking movies ineligible for subsidies. As of late August 2011, the bill was still pending in the legislature.

Global action on film subsidies

From British Columbia to Eastern Europe, public health professionals are calling for film subsidy reform. In fall 2011, the World Health Organization stated that public subsidies for smoking films are counter to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. ASH UK, the European Network on Tobacco Prevention and numerous European health experts submitted a public comment to a European Commission consultation on big-budget film subsidies, calling for future productions with smoking to be made ineligible.

Ideas for action

• Download this Action Memo.

• Using the term “film incentives” and the name of your state, look for news stories about a program’s start and recent legislative history. Several states are reconsidering the wisdom of film subsidies, while others are recently expanded them. Many programs have sunset clauses and come up for renewal or re-authorization.

• Be aware there are broader controversies about these programs and their economic benefit. While “studies” sponsored by the film industry or the programs themselves announce they are worthwhile, few if any independent analyses do. Bottom-line: No film subsidy is sustainable if it burdens a state or country with long-term health costs from tobacco.

Some non-health sources on film subsidies

California Revenue & Tax Committee Analysis (2011)

Christopherson S, Rightor N (2009) The creative economy as “Big Business”: Evaluating state strategies to lure filmmakers. Journal of Planning Education and Research 29:3;336-352.

National Conference of State Legislatures

New York Times (by Louise Story), As Companies Seek Tax Deals, Governments Pay High Price, December 2, 2012.
Michigan Town Woos Hollywood, but Ends Up With a Bit Part, December 3, 2012.
Film Subsidies from New York Times database.

Tax Foundation

The Federal Reserve

Countries subsidizing top-grossing movies, 2008-2010

Go Deeper (search on “subsidy”)

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