TUESDAY, Jan. 8, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Young people who start smoking may be influenced to do so by movies they saw in early childhood, new research suggests.
What's more, the study found that almost 80 percent of the exposure to smoking scenes in movies came through films rated "G," "PG" and "PG-13."
"Movies seen at the youngest ages had as much influence over later smoking behavior as the movies that children had seen recently," said study author Linda Titus-Ernstoff, a pediatrics professor at Dartmouth Medical School.
"And I'm increasingly convinced that this association between movie-smoking exposure and smoking initiation is real," she added. "That's to say, causal. It is quite improbable that the association we see is due to some other influence, some other characteristic inherent in children or parental behavior. The relationship is clearly between movie-smoking and smoking initiation."
The findings are published in the January issue of Pediatrics.
To gauge the impact of movie smoking on young people, Titus-Ernstoff and her colleagues focused on more than 2,200 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 12 who were enrolled in grades four through six in 26 elementary schools in New Hampshire and Vermont.
Starting in 2002 and 2003, the researchers conducted interviews with the children, and their parents, to track whether or not the kids had smoked in the past.
The researchers used a list of 50 movies compiled from a larger pool of 550 films drawn from the top 100 box-office hits released over the five-and-a-half years before the study started in 2002. About 40 percent of the films were rated "R," 40 percent "PG-13," 14 percent "PG," and 5 percent "G."
The initial survey of the kids was followed by two more interviews approximately one and two years later. At each follow-up point, a new movie list was drafted to include 50 films randomly pulled from the top 100 feature releases and the top 100 video rentals of the past year.
All the movies on the lists were coded for the number of "smoking occurrences" -- instances in which major, minor or tangential characters used or handled tobacco for the first time in a new scene.
While 21 percent of the smoking occurrences were found in "R" movies, slightly more than 60 percent were found in "PG-13" movies, and almost 19 percent were found in "G" or "PG" films, the researchers said.
Included among the "G-rated" movies that had smoking scenes were 102 Dalmations, Tarzan and Muppets from Space. "PG" films on the list that had smoking scenes were George of the Jungle, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Rainmaker.
By the third survey, almost 10 percent of the kids had started to smoke, and on average had viewed almost 37 films. That translated into an average exposure to almost 150 smoking occurrences.
After accounting for other factors that might influence behavior, the researchers concluded that 35 percent of smoking initiation among the children was directly attributable to seeing smoking scenes on the screen.
Children who may have seen smoking scenes at a preschool age were as likely to pick up a cigarette as those who had seen such scenes at a later age, Titus-Ernstoff said.
"What this means for parents is that they need to pay more attention to what children are watching," Titus-Ernstoff said. "I think they tend to worry more about sex, violence and bad language. But bad language never killed anybody. And maybe they need to pay more attention to movies that glamorize smoking or other drug abuse."
"Our finding is that the vast majority of smoking in movies that children are exposed to comes from movies that are youth-rated," she added. "So even if parents are doing a good job protecting their children from 'R'-rated movies, they still need to pay attention to the 'G,' 'PG,' and 'PG-13' movies."
Titus-Ernstoff said concerned parents could try to pre-screen new movies for smoking scenes by checking out such Web sites as www.kids-in-mind.com for detailed film descriptions.
Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research with the non-profit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, described the new study as "very strong" in terms of both its approach and findings.
"This adds to the already existing evidence of the impact of smoking in the movies," he said. "And the last thing we need is for Hollywood to be helping the tobacco companies create a positive image around a product that ultimately kills half the people who use it, and a product whose vast majority of users start as children."
To learn more, visit the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.