Film Puffs Attract Teen Buffs

Smoking scenes in movies encourage kids to light up, says study

FRIDAY, Dec. 14, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Watching a shaken Julia Roberts fumble for a Marlboro in "Erin Brockovich" does more than advance a movie's character development, says new research.

Smoking in movies makes kids more likely to experiment with cigarettes, according to the Dartmouth Medical School study.

"The positive portrayal of smoking in American movies is probably the single, most powerful pro-tobacco influence worldwide when you talk about children," says Stanton Glantz, a tobacco control advocate and the author of an editorial that accompanied the published findings in the Dec. 15 issue of the British Medical Journal.

Dr. James Sargent, a pediatrician at the Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H., who led the study, says he had become concerned about the number of kids who started smoking in his area.

He suspected that images portrayed in the media, particularly in TV or movies, were having a huge effect.

"Kids admire people who appear in those programs," says Sargent. "So it would make sense … that [kids] would be prompted to emulate the behavior that they see on the screen."

Sargent set out to study how much onscreen smoking kids were exposed to and what effect that had on their behavior with cigarettes.

First, he and his colleagues determined the number of smoking scenes in 601 popular contemporary films, which ranged from "Die Hard" to "101 Dalmatians."

From those, they selected 50 films, each of which had an average of five scenes involving smoking. Then they asked 4,919 children between the ages of 9 and 15, who were from schools in New Hampshire and Vermont, about them. After listing which of the 50 films they had seen, the children reported how many cigarettes they had smoked in their life.

Their answers could range from "never smoked" to "just a few puffs" up to "more than 100 cigarettes." That was, however, later broken down into whether each child had never smoked or had tried smoking.

The students had, on average, each seen 17 of the 50 listed films. The range of their exposure to scenes involving smoking varied widely, from a minimum of 49 scenes to a maximum of 152. Boys and older children had a higher exposure to smoking scenes.

After ruling out other factors that could influence smoking -- such as age, gender and whether parents or friends smoked -- the researchers found a dramatic link between the number of smoking scenes viewed and the number of kids who'd tried smoking:

  • Of the children who had seen between zero and 50 such scenes, 4.9 percent had tried smoking;
  • Of those who saw 51 to 100 scenes, 13.7 percent had tried;
  • Of those who was 101 to 150 scenes, 22.1 percent had tried;
  • Of those who saw more than 150 scenes, 31.3 percent had tried.

Sargent says that children get the wrong impressions about the reality of smoking from films.

"If you look at how it's depicted in the movies, it's more like a cigarette commercial," he says.

"The people are generally affluent, they're powerful, they're big personas, nothing bad happens to them, they're sexy, they're glamorous," he adds.

"What you see out on the street is predominantly blue-collar or poorer people that make up most of smokers," he says. "There's nothing glamorous about it. … They're hooked on tobacco."

Finding a link between onscreen smoking and teen-age behavior is "tremendously important," Glantz says.

"By going out into the field and demonstrating actual long-term effects on behavior, it really does undercut Hollywood's continuing denial that this is a problem," he adds.

Glantz says that when youths see smoking on film, they get the impression that smoking is normal behavior and that "everyone's doing it."

According to a 1999-2000 study by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, teens think that 67 percent of adults and 54 percent of teens smoke, but in reality less than 25 percent of adults and 17 percent of teens are smokers.

Since 1989, the tobacco industry has followed a voluntary code meant to stop paid tobacco-product placement in films. "That was codified by the 1998 tobacco settlement agreement," says Tom Ryan, a spokesman for New York-based Philip Morris U.S.A.

"As a matter of policy, [Philip Morris doesn't] seek or pay for, or approve of, any product placement of our cigarette brands in movies or on television," Ryan says. "Occasionally, people ask us; when we're asked, we deny permission to use our product."

Ryan adds that the company made this decision to maintain control over the marketing of its products. "We're focused on marketing our products to adults who choose to smoke," he says.

If a Philip Morris-brand cigarette appears in a movie scene, he adds, it's because a filmmaker has made the creative decision to place it there.

Glantz suggests that movies featuring smoking should be given "R" rating, and cinemas could also run anti-smoking ads prior to the films.

And just as movies now carry a certification stating that no animals were harmed during the making of the film, Glantz says movies should certify that no one connected with making the film received any financial or other compensation for the use of cigarettes in scenes.

Over the years, the Motion Picture Association of America has argued that such changes would interfere with filmmakers' freedom of expression.

"None of these would require any censorship of the content of the film itself," Glantz says. "It would simply require more responsible actions on the part of Hollywood."

Sargent would also like to see the movie rating system take smoking into account.

"If the smoking onscreen could prompt a kid to take up a habit that he's going to [have] for the next 40 years until he dies of lung cancer, that's a bad prompt," he says.

What To Do

Studies have shown that kids are less likely to start smoking if they know that their parents disapprove. Talk to your kids about the dangers of smoking.

Sargent says that parents can also stop their children from seeing movies that have smoking, and he notes that restricted films tend to show smoking in situations that are attractive to adolescents.

Check out Glantz's Smoke Free Movies Web site. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids offers tips on how parents can keep their kids from smoking. (You need Adobe Acrobat Reader to open this page.)

Parents concerned about the movies their kids see can also visit ScreenIt.Com, where a husband-and-wife team screen films for potentially problematic content, including smoking, for kids.

And if you'd like to see Julia Roberts as "Erin," check out this movie site.

SOURCES: Interviews with James D. Sargent, M.D., associate professor, department of pediatrics, Dartmouth Medical School, Lebanon, N.H.; Stanton A. Glantz, Ph.D., professor, department of medicine, University of California, San Francisco, Calif.; Tom Ryan, spokesman, Philip Morris U.S.A., New York, N.Y.; Dec. 15 British Medical Journal
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