The wrangle over Rango: Is a smoking cartoon a health risk?

Is the new animated flick Rango a public health hazard or a harmless cartoon? The fact that some of the characters smoke has angered anti-tobacco activists and made some parents wonder if they should go to Mars Needs Moms instead.

Tangled, How to Train Your Dragon and Gnomeo and Juliet were all hits for the Toronto mom’s boys, aged 4 and 7, but Ms. Katz is drawing the line at Rango. The flick stars Johnny Depp as a hapless lizard thrust into a gun-slinging desert town full of unsavoury critters.

“When we saw the trailer for it, I looked it up to find out if people were liking it,” she says. “I heard that there was smoking in it, so no way.”



The Paramount film has quickly become a lightning rod for controversy. Groups including Breathe California and the American Academy of Pediatrics have released statements denouncing the film, which includes characters smoking cigars and cigarettes.

“Why should parents have to navigate the movie pages with the difficulty they do?” asks Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.

“It’s not that these are art films. These are commercial products designed for children’s consumption,” she says. “You can’t be more deliberate than drawing a cigarette in. It’s not an accident that you programmed those millions of frames.”

Some observers say the issue is overblown. Parenting author Kathy Buckworth hasn’t seen the movie yet, but dismisses the controversy.

“They’re animated characters. It’s far more influential if someone like Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, a real person, were caught doing something like that,” says Ms. Buckworth, whose most recent book is Shut Up and Eat: Tales of Chicken, Children and Chardonnay.

“I grew up watching Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, and I haven’t to this day dropped an anvil on someone’s head.”

In one scene, Rango tries to out-tough a bad guy by taking the cigar out of his mouth and swallowing it – only to accidentally breathe fire on his foe. In another, a slinky female fox smokes via an old-school cigarette holder.

Research appears to be unequivocal about the effect of these kinds of images.

In study after study, a link has been drawn between the number of times a child sees smoking portrayed and the likelihood the child will smoke as a teen.

A 2009 study out of Dartmouth Medical School followed a group of kids for seven years and found that teens who viewed the most movie portrayals of smoking were twice as likely as those who had seen the fewest to become smokers.

Evidence points to observational learning and the power of messages that reinforce smoking as mechanisms that can spur an urge to smoke, the authors wrote.

“Eliminating exposure to movie smoking during childhood could reduce by more than one-third the number of young adults who ultimately become smokers,” wrote lead author Madeline Dalton, a professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth. Researchers also controlled for other factors that could influence smoking, such as rebelliousness, social influences and parenting style. Preliminary evidence also suggests that it’s the kids considered at lower risk for smoking who are affected the most.

Anti-smoking advocates say that ratings aren’t much of a barrier, since kids manage to see movies at all ratings levels. Rango is rated PG.

The fact that Rango the lizard is not the one smoking, and that those who do are mostly bad guys, is not a mitigating factor either, according to research. Another recent study found that the effect happens regardless of who is puffing.

Parents who have taken their children to see the movie see it both ways.

Michele Gold, a Torontonian living in New York, took her seven-year-old and his friends to the film for his birthday recently, and was especially shocked during the main cigar scene.

“I hadn’t heard anything about the smoking, and when that scene came on I was like, ‘Really? Do they have to include smoking in a kids’ movie?’ ” she says. “What was the thinking behind that? How could they possibly think it’s okay to put smoking in a kids’ movie?”

But at a Toronto screening of the film this week, Tara Johnson said the fact that her nine-year-old son saw smoking didn’t set off alarm bells for her.

“I didn’t find it offensive,” she says. “I don’t really see it as a concern for young people.”

Ms. Johnson said she thought the smoking fitted the gritty genre and would be more worrisome if the film weren’t a cartoon.

The film has a number of other adult references that might give parents pause. Many of the characters swill cactus juice in a saloon. The violence and body count are in line with the spaghetti western genre. There are jokes about prostate exams and such lines as, “I once found a human spinal column in my feces,” not to mention the Deliverance-evoking line, “I like it when they run.”

The film’s promotional website links to a group called, which reviews family-oriented movies. Its review of the flick decries the violence and, yes, the smoking in the film.

“It was targeted toward younger children, but they missed the mark in terms of content,” it reads.

If your kids are clamouring to see the film – or any other film that ends up having smoking or adult content in it – don’t underestimate your role as a parent in combatting those influences, Toronto child psychologist Rona Atlas says.

In the case of smoking, asking if they noticed it and what they thought of it can be a good way to start a discussion about why people smoke despite the health risks. The point is not to vilify smokers, but to add context, she says.

“They’re not getting a lot of smoking messages; there’s not a lot on TV or in movies,” says Dr. Atlas of Blueballoon Health Services. “When they get to high school some of their peers will be smoking, and they won’t have had any inoculation against it.”

Rango: The official trailer


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