HANOVER - Parents who want to know if a movie contains profanity, sex or violence can turn to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings for some guidance.
Now researchers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center say those ratings should also take depictions of alcohol use into consideration.
In fact, their newly published study suggests that movies showing alcohol use "in contexts that could increase curiosity or acceptability of unsafe drinking should be rated R."
Elaina Bergamini is the lead author of the study, "Trends in Tobacco and Alcohol Brand Placements in Popular U.S. Movies, 1996 through 2009," published last week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The study looked at the top 100 movies in each of those 14 years, counting how many times alcohol and tobacco brands were depicted in all 1,400 movies. Bergamini and her fellow researchers found that while depictions of tobacco brands dropped during that period, depictions of alcohol brands in movies rated G, PG, or PG-13 went up markedly.
She thinks she knows why. In 1998, she explained, tobacco companies signed the so-called Master Settlement Agreement with state attorneys general. As part of that agreement, the companies agreed to end product placements of their brands in film and TV.
The Cotton Center study found "dramatic declines" in the appearance of tobacco brands after that agreement, both for youth- and adult-rated movies.
Meanwhile, brand placement for alcohol is still self-regulated. And the study found that alcohol brand placement has "increased significantly in movies rated acceptable for youth audiences, a trend that could have implications for teen drinking."
The number of alcohol brand appearances in youth-rated movies increased from about 80 per year at the beginning of the study period to 145 per year at the end.
Bergamini said the Norris Cotton study group started out looking at cancer-risk behavior. And while its focus was on tobacco research, they also recorded data on movie depictions of alcohol, sex, violence and drugs.
They ended up with a rich database that Bergamini used to study alcohol brand depiction in popular movies.
About two-thirds of those top-100 movies in the study were rated G, PG or PG-13. And it turned out that 63 percent of all alcohol brand appearances were in youth-rated films.
"They're uniformly pushing their product, and they're not caring if it's youth that's going to see it," Bergamini said.
She contends alcohol companies are intentionally inserting their brands into movies that youngsters will see.
"They're trying to generate brand loyalty in a subset of the population that can't drink yet," she said. "So when they go to drink that first time, they know what to ask for."
Bergamini says both the movie and alcohol industries have a responsibility to regulate what kids see.
"I would love it if the alcohol industry would be more cognizant of what these films are going to be rated when they're pushing their products on them," she said. "They have an obligation to prevent youths from drinking. We all do, right?"
But filmmakers have a responsibility as well, she said. "Ideally, I would like movie creators to really question whether or not putting alcohol in a scene adds creative value."
And she would like to see the MPAA give movies with a lot of drinking an R rating, meaning anyone under 17 has to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. "And what that ends up doing is it pushes back on the movie creators to trim some of that alcohol out," she said.
Bergamini doesn't expect either group to self-regulate depictions of alcohol use in movies soon. But she hopes her group's research will spur more academic work on the topic "that eventually does institute some sort of change."
In the meantime, parents play a key role, she said. "Parents need to talk to their kids about the drinking that they see in these films. Talk about binge drinking. Talk about the negative consequences that are not shown in the movie."
"Don't just drop your kid off at the movie theater to see a PG-13 movie and expect that they're going to be seeing appropriate content."