Do movie ratings indicate how much smoking, drinking and other risk behaviors are shown in movies?

Supposedly, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rates movies to help parents decide whether the content of a movie is appropriate for their children to see.  We analyzed 900 top box-office movies to determine if the MPAA ratings were useful for indicating the amount of risk behaviors shown in movies. 

As reported in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Health Communication, we examined the amount of tobacco, alcohol, drug use, sexual content and violence in the top 100 movies per year from 1996 through 2004.

This is what we found:

  • The MPAA ratings do not indicate how much smoking or drinking is in a movie. There was a high degree of overlap in the amount of tobacco and alcohol use in movies across all MPAA ratings.

- PG-13 movies had as much alcohol use as R-rated movies.

- Approximately half the PG-13 movies had as much smoking as R-rated movies.

- Even G and PG movies had a substantial amount of smoking and drinking.

  • There was less overlap in sexual content across rating categories, such that PG-13 and R-rated movies portrayed significantly more sexual content than PG and G movies. 
  • MPAA ratings were most effective at distinguishing which movies portrayed drug use.  All but two of the movies with drug use were rated PG-13 or R.
  • The proportion of films with a high frequency of violence increased by rating category, from 49% of G-rated movies to 88% of R-rated movies.

These results indicate that the MPAA rating system is not adequate for parents who wish to limit their children’s exposure to tobacco or alcohol content in movies.  This study demonstrates that the MPAA ratings need to be updated to take into account risk behaviors that are harmful to adolescents and may be of concern to parents.

What can parents do?

  • Monitor what movies your child watches.
  • Use online tools designed for parents that take into account tobacco and alcohol use in their rating system (,,
  • If you are not sure whether a movie is appropriate for your child, watch if first.
  • Be aware that alcohol and tobacco use are portrayed in movies of all ratings. PG-13 movies can have as much alcohol and tobacco use as R rated movies.

Authors Jennifer Tickle, Ph.D., Michael Beach, M.D., Ph.D., & Madeline Dalton, Ph.D.