LOS ANGELES — Add cigarettes to the list of things that the family-friendly Walt Disney Company has to figure out as it prepares to integrate the sharper-edged 20th Century Fox movie and television studio.
Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, announced at a shareholder meeting in 2015 that Walt Disney Studios would “prohibit smoking in movies across the board: Marvel, Lucas, Pixar and Disney films.” He said the policy, which put Disney at the forefront of antismoking efforts in Hollywood, “was the right thing for us to do.” The decision brought cheers from activists concerned about the power of movies to promote tobacco use.
Now antismoking advocates want Mr. Iger to extend that rule to all future youth-rated films (G, PG, PG-13) made by Fox and its Fox Searchlight specialty label, which are among the assets that Disney is buying from Rupert Murdoch for $54.2 billion. Among other things, activists want “graphic health warnings” added to youth-rated films in the Fox library that depict smoking — like “Avatar” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” — before selling them on DVD or via video-on-demand services.
The requests were made in a Feb. 20 letter to Mr. Iger that was signed by 46 activists and faith-based shareholders. Boiled down, the dispatch, which has not previously been disclosed, raises a broader question shared by some people in Hollywood: How accepting will the Magic Kingdom be of the button-pushing content offered by Fox, the home of the R-rated “Deadpool” superhero franchise, the violent “Planet of the Apes” movies and “The Simpsons,” the show that once produced an episode featuring a nicotine-laced variety of tomato called “tomacco.”
Activists are continuously pressuring studios over one cause or another, but Mr. Murdoch has frequently dismissed such efforts as political correctness run amok. Disney, on the other hand, pays extraordinary attention to its brand perception, which activists often try to use to their advantage.
“We ask you now to follow your convictions, common sense and experience in keeping kids safe,” the antismoking activists wrote in their letter, a copy of which was given to The New York Times by Jono Polansky, a policy consultant for Smoke Free Movies, an initiative at the University of California at San Francisco. “Amid the myriad details involved in a corporate acquisition of this size and complexity, Disney cannot afford to leave young people’s health and lives unprotected.”
Tom McCaney, associate director of corporate social responsibility for Sisters of St. Francis, an activist order helping to lead the antismoking effort, said that Disney’s response to the letter was unsatisfactory. “Disney told us it wasn’t appropriate to discuss until the Fox deal goes through,” Mr. McCaney said. “We disagree.”
Disney declined to comment.
The last Disney-produced movies to include smoking were “Ant-Man” and “Iron Man 3,” both of which were released in 2015, according to the Smoke Free Movies database. (In truth, Disney does not have an outright ban on tobacco imagery; its official policy allows for depictions of historical figures who may have smoked or to “portray cigarette smoking in an unfavorable light or emphasize the negative consequences.”)
Fox’s approach to smoking has been much more permissive over the same time span. Since 2015, Fox has released more than a dozen PG-13 movies with tobacco imagery, including “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Love, Simon.”
Antitrust regulators are studying Disney’s agreement with Mr. Murdoch to buy most of his 21st Century Fox empire, including the FX cable network, Hulu and pieces of two overseas TV providers, Sky of Britain and Star of India. Barring any dramatic developments — like an effort by Comcast to scuttle the deal in a renewed attempt to buy the 21st Century Fox assets itself — the Disney acquisition is expected to be completed by the middle of next year. Comcast, which bid against Disney for the assets in the fall but was spurned by the 21st Century Fox board, on Wednesday made an offer to buy Sky alone.
Disney has not laid out its plans for integrating 20th Century Fox. Mr. Iger has indicated that Disney intends to manage the Fox movie labels as their own entities — much as it did in the past with divisions that specialized in more mature content, like Miramax Films, Hollywood Pictures and Touchstone. Miramax, founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, was a headache for Disney and Mr. Iger sold it in 2010. Hollywood Pictures, known for “The Sixth Sense,” was folded in 2007. Touchstone was most recently used to distribute DreamWorks Studios films, including “Bridge of Spies.” That arrangement has ended.
In December, when Disney unveiled its agreement with 21st Century Fox, Mr. Iger told reporters that he foresaw no challenges with Fox content because of Disney’s history of “managing brands in a compartmentalized way.”
He added: “We’re in the business of managing brands that are very different in nature. Marvel is certainly far afield from Disney.”
The Marvel movies that Disney has released since “Ant-Man” has skipped the tobacco.
Government studies have long shown that depictions of smoking in movies and television shows can lead to youth tobacco use. Under pressure, the Motion Picture Association of America said in 2007 that it would for the first time consider portrayals of smoking alongside sex and violence when assessing the suitability of movies for young viewers. Critics have since labeled the move ineffective, in part because the M.P.A.A. does not consider an image related to smoking — in and of itself — enough to warrant an R rating.
At that time, the American Legacy Foundation, an antismoking organization now known as the Truth Initiative, found that 90 percent of all films depicted smoking. Three-quarters of movies rated G, PG or PG-13 including tobacco use.
Most movie studios responded by putting pressure on filmmakers to kick the habit, which reduced tobacco imagery. But Hollywood, citing the need for artistic license, has resisted calls to give an automatic R rating to any movie that depicts smoking. The Motion Picture Association fought off a smoking-related lawsuit last year with a First Amendment defense. It also argued that automatic R ratings for smoking could result in similar demands for anything deemed socially unacceptable, including high-speed driving.
Concerns about smoking were rekindled last year by a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that depictions or suggestions of tobacco use in top-grossing movies were on the rise again. Truth Initiative took aim at Netflix in March with a study showing there was “pervasive” smoking in popular shows like “Stranger Things” and “Fuller House.”
Studios also face pressure overseas from the World Health Organization, which has called for governments to implement more aggressive regulation of movies that contain tobacco imagery. India, France and Britain are among the countries where action has been taken or is being discussed.
Mr. Polansky, the Smoke Free Movies consultant, vowed to continue pressuring studios beyond Disney and Fox. “To quote the Hollywood cliché, ‘We can do this the easy way or the hard way,’” he said. “But it will happen.”