Cutting Down On Smoking, On-Screen and Off

By Sarah Klein

Children seem to be particularly vulnerable to the influences of the silver screen. They want to imitate the heroics of Indiana Jones, or sing like Miley Cyrus, or have the magical powers of Harry Potter. It’s one thing when it’s harmless play or fantasy adventure, but such emulation can be much more troubling when a child is influenced by watching characters who smoke.

Research from the National Cancer Institute found that viewing movies that portray smoking can influence a teen to start smoking. By NCI estimates, about one-third to one-half of teens who start smoking do so because they saw movie stars lighting up on-screen.

The “monkey-see, monkey-do” theory is nothing new. But there’s some good news. A recent study from Dartmouth, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that movies are far less likely to depict smoking now than in the past. Researchers focused on the 25 highest-grossing films from 1990 to 2007. Each time a character smoked, or even if a cigarette was simply visible on screen, researchers counted that as a “smoking scene.”

The earlier films contained, on average, 3.5 smoking scenes each. By 2007, that number was down to 0.23. Around the same time, researchers noted a decline in the number of teens who were lighting up. In 1996, 21 percent of the eighth-graders surveyed said they had smoked in the last 30 days. By 2007, that number had dropped to only 7.1 percent. The percentage of high-school smokers also sharply declined through 2003, from 36 percent in 1997 to 22 percent. However, since 2003 additional decline has been slower:  in 2007 around 20 percent of ninth through twelfth-graders still reported lighting-up.

Parents, doctors, and health officials are happy to see the decline in youth smoking. But some aren’t satisfied. The AMA Alliance, the American Medical Association’s advocacy group, is fighting for an R rating for any movie depicting smoking. It doesn’t sound too big a stretch. The head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the group that assigns ratings to movies, reports that no movie with smoking scenes has been rated G in the past two years. Seventy-five percent of movies with smoking scenes were rated R during the same time period.

While there is no concrete evidence that the decrease in smoking among teens is directly related to the decline in on-screen smoking, the fact that smoking scenes are considered one of the leading reasons teens start to smoke is persuasive enough to press for that automatic R rating.

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