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The Smoky Silver Screen

Despite decline in tobacco use, movies as smoke-filled as in the 1950s

FRIDAY, Feb. 27, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- During the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Hollywood stars will keep their cigarettes tucked away in their purses and pockets, but on the silver screen it's a different story.

Despite years of health warnings and major declines in the number of cigarette users, American movies are just as smoke-filled as they were five decades ago, claims a new study.

Why should anyone care about smokers puffing away in front of the camera? Because "there's no question that it encourages kids to start smoking," says study co-author Stanton A. Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research at the University of California at San Francisco. In fact, one study estimated smoking on screen influences more children than advertising does.

Glantz and his colleagues examined episodes of smoking in 20 top-grossing films from the 1950s, including such classics as "Rear Window" and "A Star Is Born," and 10 of the most popular films from 2001 and 2002, such as "XXX," "Men in Black II" and "Monsters, Inc."

The researchers report their findings in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The films from the 1950s featured an average of 10.7 smoking "incidents" per hour, while those from 2001 and 2002 featured 10.9 smoking incidents per hour. By contrast, the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped to 22 percent from nearly 45 percent in the 1950s, Glantz says.

"One of the things that you hear from Hollywood is that the smoking in the movies is just reflecting historical reality," he says. "We decided to look and see if it's true. It's not."

The researchers note that some of the movies from the 1950s, including Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" and the James Dean film "Rebel Without a Cause," featured near non-stop tobacco use. If they weren't included, there would actually be more smoking in movies now than in the 1950s.

Considering that hundreds of films are released each year, the UCSF study is extremely small. Another organization tracks smoking in hundreds of films each year, however, and it has found similar trends in modern-day movies.

The Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! project, an arm of the American Lung Association, monitors the top 10 movies each week, about 150 a year. Rates of tobacco use in films dropped in the last half of the 1990s, but began rising again in 2000, says organization consultant Curtis Mekemson.

Of 498 movies reviewed from 1994-2003, 73 percent featured tobacco use, an average of 10.7 incidents per hour, he says. Over the last year and a half, the rate has been 10.8 incidents per hour. Even "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" featured pipe smoking, enough to garner it a "black lung," the lowest possible rating from the project.

Frustrated by the failure of antismoking efforts in Hollywood, both Glantz and the American Lung Association want the film industry to automatically give movies an R rating when they feature smoking. While many teens easily get into R-rated movies, the ratings can still limit a film's popularity among minors.

"Tobacco use in the movies apparently has a very powerful impact on children, and we need to do whatever we can to reduce that," Mekemson says. The ratings change, he adds, "may be the only effective method" available to antismoking advocates.

More information

To check out ratings of new movies according to on-screen tobacco use, visit Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!. For another take on smoking in the movies, visit the University of California's Smoke-Free Movies.

SOURCES: Stanton A. Glantz, Ph.D., professor, medicine and director, Center for Tobacco Control Research, University of California, San Francisco; Curtis Mekemson, primary consultant, Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, Sacramento, Calif.; February 2004 American Journal of Public Health
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