MONDAY, May 7, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- In another strike at Hollywood's addiction to cigarettes, a leading tobacco foe has calculated that U.S. adolescents have watched actors puff away a total of 13.9 billion times in 534 movies released between 1998 and 2003.
"We are trying to demonstrate to people how massive the exposure is," said Dr. James Sargent, professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. "Movies deliver billions of images of smoking to young people when they're very vulnerable to that message," he said.
While researchers haven't been able to confirm a cause-and-effect link between smoking in movies and smoking among children, many anti-tobacco activists assume there's a connection.
Indeed, research suggests that kids who watch movies that highlight smoking are more likely to smoke themselves, even when other factors are taken into account. Sargent has estimated that movies are responsible for about a third to 40 percent of all teen smoking.
In the new study, the Dartmouth team examined the incidents of tobacco use in 534 hit movies from 1998 to the first four months of 2003. Then, in a survey of more than 6,500 adolescents aged 10 to 14, they determined how many kids had seen those films.
The findings are in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics.
According to the researchers' calculations, smoking appeared in 74 percent of the movies. They extrapolated that, overall, teens saw 13.9 billion images of smoking -- an average of 665 images per child aged 10 to 14.
Movies rated PG-13 provided much of the smoking exposure because R-rated movies were seen by fewer children.
Films that delivered the most "smoking impressions" included The Perfect Storm, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring -- yes, the ritual smoking in the J.R.R. Tolkien movie counted -- Wild Wild West and Saving Private Ryan.
Brad Pitt, who lit up 42 times in movies, was the actor caught smoking the most in movies popular among kids, with Nicholas Cage (37 times) and Gene Hackman (36 times) other notable onscreen smokers. The researchers note that many actors appear to have "chosen not to smoke" in their films -- for example, Ben Affleck (who has been photographed smoking many times in real life) has never appeared as a smoker in any of his films.
Anti-tobacco activists want Hollywood to reduce smoking in movies and adjust the ratings system to give R-ratings to movies with smoking.
It's not clear if "villains" or "bad guys" -- who make up a large number of characters who smoke on screen -- have the most influence upon children, although Sargent suspects that they do. "Kids are emulating bad boys, not good boys," Sargent said.
The good news is that movie studios are finally paying attention to the problem of smoking in movies, Sargent said. "Five years ago, people in Hollywood didn't even discuss this topic. Now, it's being discussed at the highest level of corporations. I think Hollywood is getting the message, and they're thinking about it."
For more on the need for smoke-free movies, visit the University of California, San Francisco.