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Are Movies Prompting Youngsters to Smoke?

Researchers Say Incidents of Tobacco Use in Movies Has Influence on Young People
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

smoking_in_movies_youth_1.jpg

Aug. 19, 2010 -- When movies show actors lighting up a cigarette, it increases the likelihood that young people will start smoking, the CDC said today in a special report and briefing.

In the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for Aug. 20, researchers say kids are easily influenced by what they see in the movies. The researchers also say that young people who are heavily exposed to onscreen smoking are about two to three times more likely to begin smoking than those who are lightly exposed.

Officials from the CDC, the University of California-San Francisco, and the Legacy antismoking group said in a news briefing that not enough has been done by Hollywood to reduce onscreen smoking in movies.

Smoking in Movies

A study by Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, a project of Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant trails, counted occurrences of tobacco use in top-grossing movies shown in the U.S. from 1991 through 2009.

An incident of tobacco use was defined as the use or implied use of a tobacco product by an actor. Researchers found that:

  • The number of tobacco incidents peaked in 2005 and then began declining.
  • Top-grossing movies in 2009 contained 49% of the onscreen smoking incidents, or 1,935, compared to 3,967 incidents in 2005.
  • Movies that rank in the top 10 at the box office in the U.S. for at least one week account for 83% of all movies released in U.S. theaters annually, and 98% of ticket sales.

The MMWR says continued reduction of tobacco use in movies "could lead to less initiation of smoking among adolescents" and that strong methods to reduce onscreen tobacco use are needed.

The percentage of all top-grossing movies that didn't show tobacco use exceeded 50% for the first time in 2009. Also, the percentage of top-grossing youth-rated movies that did not show tobacco use reached an all-time high of 61% in 2009.

Reducing Tobacco Use by the Young

Ursala E. Bauer, PhD, MPH, director of CDC's National Health Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, said in a briefing that the U.S. has an "unprecedented opportunity" now to reduce "the tobacco epidemic" by urging Hollywood to cut back tobacco smoking in films.

She said smoking in movies "makes smoking appealing to youth and reducing those images can reduce" the number of young smokers.

"The more they see, the more likely they are to smoke," Bauer said, adding that movies create a "culture of acceptance" and send a message to young people that it's OK to smoke.

Though progress has been made in getting young people not to take up the habit, one in five high school students smokes, she said.

Stanton Glantz, PhD, primary author of the report and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says the number of smoking incidents in movies declined in 1998, a decline that may have been linked to a settlement that year between states and the tobacco industry.

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