MONDAY, Dec. 4, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Cigarette ads and smoking scenes in movies and on TV more than double the chances that children will start smoking, researchers are reporting.
Each year in the United States, some 1.4 million children under age 18 start smoking, and half of these start as a direct result of tobacco advertising, according to the researchers.
"All children are at risk from pro-tobacco media, whether the object is to market tobacco products from the companies or simply the portrayal of tobacco use in films, TV or videos," said study lead author Dr. Robert Wellman, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
"The tobacco companies have been targeting kids for years, and they haven't ever stopped," he added.
In its study, a meta-analysis, Wellman's team reviewed 51 studies conducted since 1981 that included a total 141,949 children under 18 years of age. The studies looked at exposure to tobacco advertising, promotions or cigarette samples received and pro-tobacco depictions in films, television or videos.
The researchers found that the psychological effect of tobacco marketing or media exposure increases the odds of taking up smoking almost threefold. For example, watching someone in a movie smoke can be more psychologically powerful than a cigarette ad, creating a bigger impression on children's smoking attitudes and behavior, the researchers found.
Moreover, exposure to positive images of smoking increased the odds that children would smoke by about 90 percent. Overall, children exposed to tobacco ads and positive images of smoking were about 50 percent more likely to want to smoke in the future. In addition, tobacco marketing and media increased by 42 percent the chances that children who already smoked would become heavier smokers.
The findings are published in the December issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Wellman said he believes there needs to be a ban on all tobacco advertising. "Congress really needs to sign on to the World Health Organization's convention on tobacco control, which calls for a total ban on all tobacco promotional activities," he said.
He also said that any film in which people smoke should carry an "R" or "NC-17" rating.
Danny McGoldrick, research director at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, agreed that government needs to do more to regulate tobacco ads.
"With the tobacco companies spending more then $15 billion a year marketing their products, and yet another rigorous study documenting the impact of this marketing on kids, it's imperative that the Congress finally give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate the manufacture, sale and marketing of tobacco products," he said.
McGoldrick also thinks that movies with smoking scenes should be R-rated. Doing so would greatly reduce the amount of smoking in films because studios want to avoid R ratings, he said.
Despite the criticism and results of this and other studies, one tobacco company thinks it's doing its part to keep children from smoking.
"We believe that we have a role in preventing kids from smoking," said Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA. These efforts include targeting nonsmoking ads to parents and developing strategies to limit children's access to cigarettes, he added. "We have spent more than $1 billion in our youth prevention effort since 1998," he said.
Phelps also said Philip Morris doesn't support the use of its products in movies. "We don't want our brands or brand imagery depicted in movies and television shows," he said.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids can tell you more about kids and smoking.