Are Movies Prompting Youngsters to Smoke?

Researchers Say Incidents of Tobacco Use in Movies Has Influence on Young People

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on August 19, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

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.

"All of the legal noise may have frightened some people," he says, adding, however, that movies, even those aimed at young people, "are still delivering a huge amount of pro-tobacco information."

He said the popular movie Avatar "delivered a billion impressions of smoking in the U.S. alone, given the incidents and the number of people who saw actors, including the star Sigourney Weaver, lighting up.

Hollywood could and should do more, especially in movies rated for non-adults, he says. "Avatar contributed to a substantial number of kids taking up nicotine."

He says there are still too many scenes of people smoking even though Congress held hearings in 2007 on smoking in movies.

Glantz also says the Harvard School of Public Health has recommended that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) "take substantive and effective action to eliminate the depicting of smoking from movies accessible to children and youths."

He said the MPAA has reacted inadequately by doing little, or certainly not enough.

Citing an analysis of four studies, he said it is estimated that 44% of young people trying smoking can be attributed to what they see in the movies.

Congressmen Urge Hollywood Action

Glantz says two members of Congress, Reps. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., sent a letter today to the MPAA encouraging the movie industry to adopt stricter measures to reduce smoking by young people.

They urged the MPAA to require strong anti-tobacco announcements before films show people lighting up and for the movie group to give future films containing tobacco imagery an "R" rating.

"Today's CDC report reaffirms that youth are overexposed to images of smoking in movies and this exposure can significantly increase a child's decision to start smoking," Markey says in a news release. "It's time for the movie industry to accept its own version of a nicotine patch by embracing a policy that will help them kick the habit of including images of smoking in movies targeting youth."

He said such a commitment "would be a powerful investment in the long-term public health of our youth and our nation."

Show Sources


Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol 59: pp 1014-1016.

Stanton Glantz, PhD, professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco.

Ursula E. Bauer, PhD, MPH, director, CDC National Health Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, president and CEO, Legacy.

News release, Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.

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