Smoking in Children’s Books: Would a Rating System Help?

In Forsyth v. Motion Picture Association of America, et al., a plaintiff has waged an uphill battle against Hollywood to force films featuring tobacco imagery to receive nothing lower than a “Restricted” (R) rating, thereby reducing the exposure of children under 17 to these images.  Among the films the plaintiff believes should have been rated R — instead of PG-13 — because of such images are The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey.

Both of these movies are based on J. R. R. Tolkein’s classic novels, which feature pipe-loving hobbits, wizards, and dwarves:

“What do you mean?” [Gandalf] said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain. If you have a pipe about you, sit down and have a fill of mine! There’s no hurry, we have all the day before us!” Then Bilbo sat down on a seat by his door, crossed his legs, and blew out a beautiful grey ring of smoke that sailed up into the air without breaking and floated away over The Hill.

“Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning…”

~Chapter 1, The Hobbit

Elsewhere in literature, we’ve got Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar:

[Alice] stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.

~Chapter IV, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

And even my darling Matthew from Anne of Green Gables (which I’ve been re-reading as I work on Anusha of Prospect Corner with my twins):

Matthew was smoking—a sure sign of perturbation of mind. He seldom smoked, for Marilla set her face against it as a filthy habit; but at certain times and seasons he felt driven to it and them[.] Marilla winked at the practice, realizing that a mere man must have some vent for his emotions.

~Chapter III, Anne of Green Gables

AliceDo these types of positive, neutral, or at least tolerant references to smoking in children’s literature harm children?

I don’t know to what extent the books children read directly impact their behavior — it probably varies from book to book, subject to subject, and child to child — but I certainly remember many books from my childhood that influenced me. At a minimum, I think it’s fair to say that the books children read reinforce societal norms and that books that glorify or excuse smoking might send the wrong message. That message could be a genuine concern for parents who do not want their children to smoke.

That is, if their children live in a vacuum.

Hopefully, a pro-smoking message isn’t the only one a child is receiving. I’m quite comfortable with the fact that my children are exposed to many different messages, not just the ones I want them to accept. As I said in Please Stop Parenting My Children:

[E]xposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.

When it comes to smoking, my children are receiving medically-accurate information about its dangers from me, from their school, and also from other books they read like Ramona Quimby and Her Father (which my 8-year-old reviewed on Beverly Cleary’s 100th Birthday in April).

However, it might be difficult to counter messages in the books my children read if I don’t know the content of those books. Part of me wants to be able to vet all of their reading material by reading it myself, but who has the time to do that? Plus, my helicopter-parenting would probably remove some of what makes reading so enjoyable for my children: the ability for self-exploration without their mom breathing down their necks.

Still, I try to do my parental due diligence–so I don’t end up with another Butterfly situation again!–by googling books for reviews and asking friends for recommendations and advice.

Would it be useful to have a standardized rating system for books like the one the film industry uses? Maybe an emblem on the cover?

Probably not. As the Forsyth lawsuit suggests, ratings are largely arbitrary and not everyone agrees with the results. Plus, if the rating is too sensitive about so-called offensive material, then it might dissuade parents and educators from allowing children to read books for no good reason, making the rating no better than a “book ban.”

Shortcuts in parenting rarely work. A rating is no substitute for assessing the book myself, and hiding a book because of the themes it may or may not contain is no substitute for talking to my children about those challenging topics. I don’t always know what they’re reading, so the best I can do is to encourage them to come to me if they have questions.

So far, nothing bad has happened because of something my kids read. If my kids end up smoking someday, it probably won’t be because Matthew Cuthbert did.


*Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.


  1. Interesting post AMB, but I believe you have summed it up very well, especially in your paragraph ‘Exposure to many different ideas…’. It is remarkable how a once universal habit, promoted by every film star and celebrity, has become that of social pariahs. Who knows where opinion will have swung in 50 years time.

    1. Times really have changed. Smoking advertisements were everywhere in the US when I was a kid and people could smoke in restaurants and workplaces. That isn’t the case anymore. I prefer it this way. It’s easier to accept smoking in some pieces of children’s literature because it’s so rare.

  2. It has always been thus: adults do some things children are not allowed to. I don’t like the idea of ratings much, as they do seem rather arbitrary; films that depict sex acts get a more restrictive rating than those with body parts flying around.

  3. It’s odd how I actually never thought about this topic before, but now that you mention it… The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland.. The idea of an emblem on the cover is an interesting one. Although, like you’ve mentioned as well, the fact there’s smoking in children’s books, such as Gandalf in The Hobbit, doesn’t automatically mean the reason children do at an older age is because of the good old grey wizard

    1. I hadn’t actually thought much about smoking in children’s literature until I saw the articles on the Forsyth lawsuit against the movie industry. It’s easier for me to relax about smoking in children’s literature because it isn’t a ubiquitous message. I might have felt differently about it if the tobacco industry could advertise today the way they did when I was a kid (the ads were everywhere!).

  4. I think smoking in fantasy novels, like The Hobbit or Alice in Wonderland, is a little different from smoking in more realistic novels, where the laws of the universe seem to be the same as ours and probably ailments are similar as well.
    I certainly agree that the best idea is to expose children to as many different ideas as possible! Perhaps also as many different kinds of worlds, too.

    1. You make a good point that it may be different when the smoking is portrayed in a fantasy novel versus a realistic novel. At the same time, though, sometimes the less realistic characters are the ones that appeal the most to children (such as Joe Camel from tobacco advertising).

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