Movie Smoking Hooks Teens, Experts Say
Batchelor, Suzanne, National Catholic Reporter
"Smoking in movies is responsible for addicting 1,080 U.S. adolescents to tobacco every day, 340 of whom will die prematurely as a result."
--Editorial, The Lancet British medical journal, June 10, 2003
Watching popular movies is the No. 1 factor leading nonsmoking teens to light up, say researchers from New Hampshire's Dartmouth Medical School in a landmark 2003 study published in The Lancet. They found film character smoking more persuasive than traditional advertising, peer pressure or parents.
"Smoking in movies is having a major effect on health," concluded The Lancet editorial accompanying their findings. Given that the tobacco companies have agreed in settlements to cease marketing to the young, the question remains, how is it that the film industry has begun to release movies that give special play to lead figures who smoke?
No one seems to have any easy answers, but regardless of why movie characters are smoking, the health harm is the same.
"There's a link between movie smoking and what kids do, and there's a lot of smoking in movies. It's extremely prevalent," said physician Michael Beach, who worked with Drs. Madeline Dalton, James Sargent and others on the Dartmouth study. Surprisingly, the researchers found the persuasive effect was strongest in children of nonsmoking parents.
Beach and colleagues also found that about 60 percent of the smoking in popular films was seen in the youth-rated movies (G, PG and PG-13).
Beach is typical of many tobacco control advocates and researchers who see:
* Attractive actors smoking identifiable brands on-screen, making tobacco control advocates fear for the health of a new, young generation of tobacco addicts;
* A tobacco industry that says it advertises only to adults who freely choose to smoke while the a film industry keeps producing movies aimed at teens in which smoking is surprisingly widespread;
* Intriguing questions--but no answers--about how tobacco products get such big play in most top-rated and youth-rated movies.
To take the last point first: Among the top 10 box office movies reported for the week of Nov. 10--including "The Matrix Revolutions," "Elf," "School of Rock," "Mystic River," "Scary Movie 3," "Radio" and "Brother Bear"--only "Brother Bear" was smoking free. Characters smoke in more than two-thirds of youth-rated movies released in 2002 (movies rated G, PG and PG-13), according to a survey by Dr. Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine, and analyst Karen Kacirk.
Most smokers begin as teenagers, researchers say, and smoking may be more addictive begun in those years when the brain is still forming.
"If you don't smoke by 18 or 21," Beach said, "the odds of starting as an adult are extremely small. It's getting these children through adolescence that's particularly important."
Only the major characters
The Dartmouth movie study didn't count the characters lighting up in the background, only cigarettes on the lips of major film characters. Researchers followed 2,600 children who had never smoked, ages 10 to 14, for one and two years, tracking which of 50 randomly selected top-selling movies they watched. Smoking by each film's central characters was measured.
Movie watching nearly tripled the risk a teen would start smoking, said Beach, who added, "What's surprising to some people is that movies can have that much impact." But is it? "Tom Cruise wore Ray-Ban sunglasses in one film and suddenly everyone has them." No surprise then at what results when "Julia Roberts and Sean Penn are seen smoking in movies."
Along with smoking, clearly visible tobacco brand names in movies are a major issue with anti-smoking advocates.
Health advocates point to the Marlboros smoked by Sam Rockwell in the 2003 film "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Sissy Spacek's Marlboros in "In the Bedroom," Russell Crowe's Winstons in "A Beautiful Mind," or John Travolta's Skoal in "Basic," to name but a few examples. …