Monday, November 9, 2009

State Film Incentives and Smoking: An Email Exchange About Competing Policies

I had an excellent email exchange with Jonathan Polansky yesterday and today. Jonathan is a media consultant, anti-smoking advocate and the principal of Onbeyond, LLC , a media consultancy in Fairfax, California. His current project is on behalf of the University of California.

I am going to reprint our exchange for you because I think it raises some great issues. The essential topic is the conflict between state tax incentive support of films which can influence children and adolescents toward smoking, and how this conflicts with money that those same states are spending on anti-smoking education.

There is an underlying issue that is perhaps even more interesting -- when states facilitate film production through tax incentives, should the state be concerned with the content of the film? This raises a fascinating First Amendment issue -- if a state were to look at film content as a part of the basis for its funding decisions, would a refusal to fund a film on the basis of content constitute a form of unlawful prior restraint? How about issues of discrimination? If a state refuses to fund a film that is perceived as influencing children to smoke, how about refusing to fund films that include drinking or premarital sex or ...? Once you're on that train, where is the last stop?

State tax incentives as a communication control mechanism. Read my exchange with Jonathan before you decide. He makes some very good points. You may or may not agree with him, but the guy is an excellent communicator.

I would really love to get some comments on this issue. It adds an entirely new facet to the discussion of state film incentives.

Jonathan initiated our exchange with this email:

From: Jono Polansky []
Sent: Sunday, November 08, 2009 1:37 PM
To: Roger Goff
Subject: Film incentives
Mr. Goff —
We noted your thoughtful post on the Iowa film incentive program — and what localities should think about before setting one up.
Whatever the job-creation value of film incentive programs, their indiscriminate funding mechanisms unexpectedly contribute to a serious public health challenge for states, according to a report to be released Tuesday, November 10, by University of California researchers.
Attached is a media advisory embargoed to 11/10. The full report can be downloaded, starting Tuesday, at
We hope you find this of interest. Thanks for your consideration.
I replied as follows:

On Nov 8, 2009, at 2:41 PM, Roger Goff wrote:
Thanks for sending this, Jonathan. As long as you took the time to send it and write a nice note, I'll take a few minutes to respond.
Let me preface this by saying that I am 100% on your side on the broad issue. I am very much against smoking. I recognize that it does create huge health problems and places a financial burden on all of us. I also recognize that kids are subject to a variety of influences, media among them. Here's where I depart a bit.
There are a few points that occur to me.
1. As a parent, I feel it is my responsibility to educate my kids. There is no way that I can keep them from being exposed to a wide variety of negative influences, nor would I necessarily want to. If I shelter my children completely from the temptations and bad behaviors with which they will be confronted, I lose the opportunity to shape their response to those issues. I have gone out of my way to make sure that my kids understand how unhealthy and damaging smoking (and drinking and drugs and unprotected sex) are so that they respond negatively to it when they are confronted by it. I feel I can only protect them by engaging them in the issue, not by avoiding it. So, I see smoking in films as an opportunity to reinforce their values in that regard.
2. I think your statistics are unfairly misleading. Taking the entire amount that a state spends on making films which include smoking, and holding it up against amounts spent on programs specifically aimed at anti-smoking education, is not comparing apples with apples. This would be like drawing a parallel between a film which contains a moment of contextual sexual activity and pornography. The vast majority of the money spent to support film production had zero impact on children smoking. Putting that entire budget in the negative column is ludicrous and in my view undermines the credibility of your position. When you're going to cite studies, if you do it in an obviously biased manner, you add little to the legitimate discussion of the subject matter. And that's something that I say often to a number of people on a variety of topics, because it is something we see often in this day and age of massive public discourse through the Internet.
3. I don't think I believe that a kid who would otherwise be a non-smoker will change his or her behavior because he or she saw someone smoke in a film. Obviously, this goes to my first point, as well. Kids need to have good parents and education, as well as a positive self-image and belief in their future. If you can give kids all of those things, then a cigarette in a film will have no impact at all. And if you don't do those things for kids, then they will probably engage in self-destructive behavior whether they see it in a movie or not. Am I saying that it is completely inconsequential? No, not quite. I understand that sustained exposure to behaviors can legitimize those behaviors in the eyes of youth and adolescents. But I don't think it is nearly as powerful as you make it seem.
And I am not saying that I am against anti-smoking education, although I am probably a little bit of a Libertarian when it comes to states spending money to promote specific ideologies. With that said, I don't consider anti-smoking to be an ideology because it is pretty hard to legitimately take the other side of the issue. Anyone who is pro-smoking is an idiot. I guess I can understand people who hold the broad belief that everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want so long as it is not hurting anyone else, but I also completely understand the public health arguments against smoking. Ultimately, as I said at the top, I am 100% anti-smoking and I find it hard to take very seriously anyone who tries to argue in favor of it.
Bottom line, you and I are on the same side of the issue, but I think you are standing much further out on the plank than I am. I balance the issue against other things that I think are also important, such as the First Amendment and support of the economy and the arts. I'm sure you value those things as well, but we probably have a bit of disparity in our priorities.
Again, thanks for including me in your discussion, and thanks for reading my blog. It is nice to know that neither of us is screaming into the wind and that someone is listening, don't you think?
Best of luck,
Jonathan's excellent response:

From: Jono Polansky []
Sent: Monday, November 09, 2009 11:05 AM
To: Roger Goff
Subject: Re: Film incentives
Thanks for your thoughtful response, Roger.
The evidence that exposure to on-screen smoking leads adolescents to smoke is conclusive. The full texts of numerous peer-reviewed studies supporting this conclusion can be found at, as can reviews of the research such as National Cancer Institute (2008). Rigorously controlled studies are the basis for the attributable risk used to estimate the impact of movie smoking on youth smoking prevalence.
Incidentally, the research evidence indicates that the children of non-smoking parents are at least as vulnerable to this recruitment channel as children of smoking parents. We all aim to influence our kids in the right direction. The problem is that other influences can be as strong or stronger.
The film industry is already grappling with the issue of smoking in kid-rated films — and no longer disputes the science. Major studios have largely eliminated smoking from G/PG films in the last couple of years (with trivial benefit to adolescents) and the majors have added anti-smoking PSAs to their youth-rated DVDs with smoking. The MPAA has also claimed to make smoking a consideration in ratings, but the record shows that it does not up-rate for smoking and avoids labeling smoking in most PG-13 movies opening wide. Pressure from state Attorneys General, Congress, and national health organizations has at least gotten the industry's attention.
As for your point about apples-to-apples, the investment that states make in film subsidies at this time directly conflict with the resources devoted to tobacco prevention. The report estimates that about 60 percent of the subsidy money is going to films with smoking imagery. That $830 million is about $100 million more than the states spend on all aspects of tobacco prevention. Because films with smoking account for about half of all new young smokers each year, indiscriminate state film subsidies of this scale significantly undercut the state interest in preventing kids from starting to smoke. Comparing the state spending on film subsidies and on tobacco prevention captures the budgetary emphasis placed on these two conflicting policies.
Perhaps a "consistent" libertarian would condemn the state film subsidies out of hand — and government anti-smoking programs along with them. For the rest of us, who want to see public resources used well, the wasteful conflict between these two programs begs for resolution.
The report does not advocate to end public film subsidies. We are proposing that these programs be amended to avoid subsidizing films with content that powerfully subverts another public good (and state policy priority): the prevention of youth smoking. If these film subsidies are economically justified, tweaks that protect young people from a public health danger that costs more lives than drunk driving, drug use, and criminal violence combined could assure the sustainability of these programs.
Given evidence that these film programs appear not to create jobs but merely shift them around from state to state, the broader public interest is probably best served by seeing if the $196 billion annual health costs from tobacco can be reduced, to a significant degree, merely by adjusting tax credit eligibility criteria in these programs. Based on 2008 data, three out of five domestic film projects would be completely unaffected by the eligibility change proposed in the report.
As the major studios and their parent companies have learned, the on-screen smoking issue is not going away. In part, this is because the film industry collaborated commercially with the tobacco industry to promote smoking and brands in at least six of the last eight decades. Those who back public film subsidies need to acknowledge this legacy, which the nation is still paying for, and recognize the continuing power of films to shape tobacco use. It is a problem. It can be fixed.
Thanks again for your consideration.
Best regards,
Jonathan Polansky
Consultant to University of California, San Francisco
Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education


Marty Thornley said...


Thank you for posting this conversation.

Smoking is obviously a health risk. Programs and incentives to stop it are great and even necessary. Going out to restaurants and bars now is SO much nicer (and healthier) than years ago. The benefit of having less smoke in the air is clear.

But the thought of government tax incentives being based on content is a truly frightening prospect for anyone with a creative bent and I would think for anyone at all.

What about guns? What about murder? What about speeding or drunk driving? What about terrorism or war? The government spends money fighting all these things.

What about gay marriage? Abortion? Adultery?

What ever side you take on any of these issues, would you want the government saying you can't get funding for your voice but the opposing side can?

The argument of dollars spent on films depicting smoking vs money spent against smoking is irrelevant.

I get sick of people blaming the media for the poor behavior of their kids as well, but that is also irrelevant.

Prior constraint is one of the most glaring threats to freedom of speech and must be avoided all costs.

clive (filmutopia) said...

One of the basic truths of the movie industry is that anyone who thinks they can exert control over the funding, will always make a power play to control the content.

One of the problems of state regulated movie finance, is that it will always become a focus for pressure groups, whose intention is to force their agenda. Not only that, content will always be used as a political stick, used to beat politicians.

"Our taxes used to make pro-abortion movie!"... "Our taxes used to promote pederast movie"... "our taxes used to promote, smoking."

I've seen this a lot in the UK, where state movie funding is often granted to projects that tick the right political boxes, rather than to projects that are commercially viable.

Invariably what this does is undermine the development of a region's film industry... pushing movie makers towards politically correct, rather than towards movies with either commercial or artistic integrity.

Not only that, there already exists a way of regulating movie content... it is why movies are rated for content.

The whole purpose of the ratings system is to control who gets access to what viewing material. So, my suggestion to the anti-smoking lobby is to put your efforts into getting a higher rating for movies that depict smoking.

Actually, that would be highly effective, because most mainstream movie makers are chasing that magic (12 or PG) rating. You would see a high degree of self censorship, from within the industry.

Like most things in the movies, the smoking of a cigarette is often a metaphor or a symbol which tells the audience about the character. Like all symbols the actual meaning changes over time, as society's attitudes change towards the behaviour.

So, in the 1940's it is true, smoking was shorthand for glamour and sexiness.

These days the smoking of a cigarette is more often used to display anxiety... so in the movie "Matchstick Men" Nic Cage's constant smoking, underlined his relentless fears, metal health problems and self-loathing... at the end of the movie, when he's achieved some peace, he's no longer a smoker.

In a TV series like NCIS, the only character who smokes is Gibb's retired mentor... so here the cigarette represents an old fashioned, outdated life style.

Often in modern movies smoking is used to show poverty or that the character is part of the underclass. Very rarely is it glamourised... and where it is, it generally because the cigarette is still shorthand for "rebellious."

What I'm saying is actually very simple.

Firstly, the equation between smoking and glamour isn't a realistic understanding of how smoking is portrayed in the movies and these days it is as often shown as a negative behaviour.

And, there are already well established ways to protect minors through the ratings system...

and finally, using state funding of movies as a political football is just plain wrong.

Mark said...


This is an interesting topic for discussion. Thanks for posting it.

While I applaud the concept of unrestrained government support for the creative arts, I think it's an unrealistic goal. Government has no money except what it collects from the citizenry, and must therefore use its money in ways that support the majority opinion.

We have many contentious issues in our society today, as we have throughout our history. The topics change, but we always have issues for debate. It's part of what makes our country an interesting place. The topic of government support for anything, whether it's creative arts, to abortion, to economic recovery and military expeditions have sides who are invested in "their" side getting support.

I feel it's the responsibility of government to follow the lead of the majority, and in the case of funding creative arts, should reflect the majority opinion. So, in the case of smoking, it's clear that the majority of the population thinks smoking is a bad idea and laws are being enacted nation-wide to limit it. I could support a government funding decision based on this social swing.

Private foundations do exist that can generate their own sets of rules. As long as government does not interfere with the operation of these, we maintain a fair and balanced society with no infringement on First Amendment rights.

I have considered if government has a role in presenting the "other side" to continue debate and to broaden ideas. After all we don't want a bland society where only one idea, or one perspective, is presented. We need healthy debate to continue to be a democratic country. On topics where there is no clear majority opinion (perhaps the "super-majority" concept employed at the federal level) I would support government funding of a broader topic. For example, I think gay marriage falls into this area: it's unclear where public opinion is going today although I expect it will, with time, become more defined. But, for smoking, I think the time is passed.

Thanks again for hosting the discussion.

clive (filmutopia) said...

The purpose of arts funding should exclusively used to support the opinions of "the majority." Really? Are you sure about that?

So, what you're saying is that because the majority of the US population is Christian, that all state funded movies should be from a Christian perspective... or that in a state with a Democrat majority, all movies should be left of centre and in Republican states, all movies should be right of centre.

How far do you actually want to go down this funding only for ideas that are "supported of the majority" funding route? Perhaps all the submitted scripts could be posted out to registered voters and they could vote for the script they like best.

There is no surer way of destroying the tax incentive schemes for movie making than to submit to the pressures of single issue groups over content, unless it is our intention to have script meetings that go:

"We need you to take the smoking out of pages ten and fourteen... we want you to change the protagonist from driving a SUV to driving a hybrid, because this state is promoting fuel efficient cars... then on page 36 we want you to change the hamburger he eats to a salad, because this state promotes healthy eating... oh, and can you have the hero mention how important exercise is in his lifestyle... maybe during the chase sequence he could comment on how regular exercise has made chasing bad guys much easier..."

The purpose of the state funding of movies is not supporting or campaigning against specific content... it is about supporting the creative industries in that region.

The choice is very simple... tax incentives are either about supporting the movie industry or they are about funding movies that conform to a political agenda... you can't have it both ways.

Roger Goff said...

Thanks to all three of you for the comments. I do think this is a very important discussion and you all do an excellent job of framing the arguments. I invite further discussion from others, and additional comments from any of you.

Personally, I think government needs to be content neutral in the area of culture. It seems to be the quintessential slippery slope -- once you take a step into using funding to push agendas in art, there is no logical stopping point. Can I imagine extreme examples to undermine my argument? Of course. But using public dollars to shape artistic expression seems to undermine the essence of one of the basic freedoms on which our country was founded. I think the same concept applies in any democracy where personal freedoms are valued.

Seeing the issue intelligently discussed from both sides certainly helps me clarify my own views. I hope it is doing the same for others, regardless of which side of the argument they favor.

Ace Baker said...

The question of media content control by government is really a question of government in general.

I agree with Roger that "government needs to be content neutral in the area of culture." At least I think I agree. It depends on the definition of "content neutral" and "culture".

Major League Baseball is surely part of our culture, and seemingly content neutral. It's a bunch of guys playing a game. And yet government-sponsored messages appear on screen glorifying the Marines. In the 7th inning a tear-jerking tribute is sung to "the brave men and women in our armed forces stationed around the world who risk their lives to protect our freedom". This is hardly a neutral position on the wars.

Does the education system affect culture? Of course it does, and again, government's role in content is hardly neutral. The same point could be made about any government agency - the FDA, the FCC, the Fed, etc. Government agencies always affect culture, and they are never neutral.

So I doubt most people will agree that government should be content-neutral in all matters of culture, once the extent of current government involvement is made plain. Usually, what people really want is government policy that favors THEIR position, and they are happy to then label that as "neutral".

My personal view of government (commonly known as libertarianism), leaves me far outside the mainstream. I favor neutrality, and to me that means keeping the government out of it, whatever "it" is, including films.

Of course government funding of films is an effort to control the content. Of course it's a slippery slope. That's the whole idea. Do you really object to government content-control of films? Why? Don't you think they have your best interest at heart?

Roger Goff said...

Thanks, Ace. That is what I love about discussions like this. You start to see that there are not merely two points of view, but several shades of gray. Your position (eloquently stated, as always) gives yet another angle from which to examine the topic. We begin to see that we don't live in just an "us vs. them" world, but instead that every issue is really more complex (and interesting) than that.

clive (filmutopia) said...

Sorry to jump back in Roger, but to be perfectly honest, we have all, myself included, missed the most important point in this debate.

The problem with looking at tax incentives as a tool for social engineering, is that the baseline assumption is all wrong. Excluding movies that have smoking in them won't work... and here's why.

The baseline assumption here is about the actual power dynamic between State funding and the movie makers. In order to alter script content, the assumption has to be that fund holders have all the power in this relationship. When in fact, it's the movie makers who are in control.

Let's assume that the State "X" decides to adopt Jonathan's policy and not fund movies that have smoking in them. What will the result be? Well, any producer who wants to keep the smoking in their movie will not contact "X's" Film commission and will look for a State that won't dick them about re: content.

If every State in the US did the same, then movie makers would shoot in Europe, or New Zealand or anywhere else that would give them the incentives they need to get their movie made.

The purpose of State incentives is to attract movie makers to produce in that State... that's why it's called an incentive. The States are competing with each other, and the rest of the world, to attract productions, because those productions are of economic benefit to the State.

Or, in other words, the State has the most to lose by embargoing certain types of content... and most importantly for Jonathan, it has no effect on the content of the movie produced, just where it gets produced.

Like I said before, the best bet Jonathan has of controlling content with regards to smoking is the ratings system. Using State tax incentives to control content is a foolish approach, which won't achieve the objective and if implemented will mire all the tax incentive schemes in years and years of battling single interest groups as they all try to get their agendas met.

In the meantime, every smart movie producer in the country will be taking Jonathan's research, which proves smoking in movies increases sales, and using it as part of a pitch to Big Tabacco... "Guys, if you invest in my movie, not only can we offer you a return on your investment, but at the same time we're actually promoting your product on every movie screen in the world... and here's the evidence."

In other words, these very reforms could drive movie makers to seek a relationship with the tabacco companies and with it, an increase of smoking in movies. Let's face it, they have a lot of money and they also are interested in global markets... there is a natural match there. If I had a movie which would fair well in the Asian markets right now, I'd be putting a lot of smoking in the script and printing off Jonathan's report. Big Tabacco is really pushing in Asian and 3rd world markets at the moment.

Personally, as a European movie maker, I hope the anti-tabacco lobby does mess up the various US state tax incentive schemes, because that means more movies shot in Europe. More work for the professionals I work with.

clive (filmutopia) said...

PS... can someone remind me to not post comments when I'm tired.

Tobacco, not tabbaco! I got the English mixed spelling up with the Italian! LOL

Roger Goff said...

Wow, really good points, Clive. I guess Jonathan believes that if enough states followed his philosophy, then it would cut off some of the overall available funds for "smoking" films and decrease the number of such films getting made. But in a practical sense, even if he had that much of an impact on state governments, it just drives filmmakers to alternative sources of funding -- such as tobacco companies.

On the larger issue, I think you show further why it is a losing battle to attempt to control what gets produced (other than in a totalitarian country with severe penalties). That's why I still think the best tactic is education and indoctrination to healthy lifestyles and self-respect. Of course, as a parent. I know that's easier said than done, as well.

Thanks for continuing to contribute on this.

Ace Baker said...

The case of "private" colleges is instructive here. U.S. colleges can qualify for many different types of federal funding, but to qualify they must adhere to federal guidelines. In theory, private colleges are perfectly free to ignore the guidelines, forgo the funding, and offer any sort of curriculum they desire.

But it's not so simple.

Currently federal funding subsidizes the price of tuition by about 50%. That is, tuition would be about double in the absence of federal funding. How is a completely private college supposed to compete with that?

I don't think we're at that point with filmmaking, yet, but watch out for that slippery slope . . .

Roger Goff said...

That gets into an even larger issue of the real cost of government assistance -- not just in terms of tax dollars, but social impact. A huge and interesting topic. Clearly outside the scope of this blog, but a great conversation over a beer.

Richard L. Barnes, JD said...

There is no First Amendment violation in a state denying a film subsidy based on content of any other reason. The US Supreme Court resolved matter decades ago: A legislature’s decision not to subsidize the exercise of a First Amendment right does not infringe the right, Regan v. Taxation With Representation of Wash., 461 U.S. 540, 546-549, 103 S.Ct. 1997, 76 L.Ed.2d 129 (1983), and one who wishes to exercise a First Amendment right is not entitled to a subsidy from the state to make that right fully realized Cammarano v. U.S., 358 U.S. 498, 79 S.Ct. 524, 3 L.Ed.2d 462 (1959).

Roger Goff said...

Richard, thanks for that information. That certainly adds some substance to the discussion.

I think my question is whether there would be any legal argument about managing a program such as this in a manner that specifically supports certain political positions but not others. I'm not saying that anti-smoking is necessarily a political issue, but in the broader sense, it is a question of using government money to shape the message of the content that is produced.

This isn't really an issue of a legislature having an obligation to fund a First Amendment right, but more a question of how authorized funding is applied. And my suspicion is that it is not really a First Amendment issue, but more of a discrimination issue. My guess is that only protected classes would have any protection, as with most discrimination issues. So, a government certainly couldn't fund on the basis of religion, race, etc., but non-protected classes (such as smokers or tobacco companies) would not have any right to equal protection.

Jonathan Polansky said...

I appreciate all the interesting comments. Some responses:

• Every leading health group in this country, and the World Health Organization globally, has proposed an adult ("R" in the US) rating for future films with smoking precisely because this would alter the incentive structure for producers re tobacco content and substantially reduce youth exposure and smoking initiation.

The proposal to make G/PG/PG-13 films ineligible for public subsidies is congruent with the rating proposal, as the UCSF report points outs.

• States compete for the privilege of hosting film productions, even though third-party analyses suggest that states can incur a net revenue loss on the deal. This competition is a classic "race to the bottom" as states feel forced to jack up their subsidies, streamline their application requirements, and make it easier for filmmakers to cash out their transferrable tax credits.

(Louisiana, for example, now offers to buy back its tax credits for 85¢ on the dollar, effectively setting a floor for the value of the credit on the brokered market. Those cashed-out tax credits then leave the state to be spent elsewhere.)

Of 41 states with film incentives, about a dozen are really in the running for large-budget feature film productions. It is not implausible to think that significant pressure can be mounted in those states (and others) to tobacco-condition subsidies.

Because concern about smoking-recruitment by youth-rated movies is worldwide (the adult rating proposal is already endorsed by health expert organizations in nations throughout the EU) it is also reasonable to think that Canadian and European film subsidies can and will be challenged on this issue.

Budget deficits have already brought these film schemes into question in several states. States squeezed by health costs (all of them) might begin to wonder why they're funding Hollywood movies that recruit a new generation of uninsured smokers.

• Finally, as Barnes, JD, points out, there is no First Amendment issue here. The government is not obliged to finance any film project. Instead, the promoter can get private financing, for example, from studios that merely have the last word on the screenplay, direction, casting, and editing.

Subsidies are grants to private individuals and enterprises, justified if they further a compelling public interest. The jobs rationale is a bit unclear. What we do know is that smoking on screen causes kids to smoke; hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk from this recruitment channel alone; and the taxpayer is now haplessly financing this harm.

Lots of other things have been tried to stop the film industry from continuing to act as a de facto marketing arm of the tobacco industry, after decades in which the commercial collaboration was explicit. We welcome you to review the history of the issue and make suggestions.

For more info on the issue of movie smoking, please visit

The UCSF report on film subsidies can be downloaded from