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Bad Guys Get Good Kids to Light Up

By Sarah Klein

In May, researchers found that teen smoking and smoking portrayed in movies that teens watch were both on the decline. Members of the research team, from Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School, have now taken their work one step further, to find out which smoking characters have more of an influence over teens.

In fact, researchers found that “good guy” and the “bad guy” smokers are equally influential. Lead author of the study Susanne Tanski explained in a press release that bad characters are more likely to be portrayed as smokers in movies, but because there are typically so many more good characters, the influence evens out. “Episode for episode, (teens) who saw negative character smoking were more likely to start smoking, but since overall there is so much more exposure to 'good guy' smoking, the net effect is similar," she said.

Tanski’s team surveyed over 6,500 adolescents over a two-year period. Participants were asked which of a sampling of new movies they had seen. The films contained portrayals of good, bad, and neutral characters smoking. Of the 3,848 characters analyzed, a vast majority—2,486—were good guys. Only 13.7 percent of the good guys smoked, while 22.8 percent of the 518 negative characters lit up. After 24 months, almost 16 percent of the teens who had never previously smoked had tried a cigarette.  

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that “good” kids, defined in the study as those who ranked least likely to engage in risky, sensation-seeking behavior, are more likely to mimic a bad guy. In other words, a bad character smoking has the biggest influence on good kids. Usually we hear arguments that the more kids are exposed to something in a movie—like smoking, violence, or sex—the more likely they will be to emulate the bad behavior. But in this case, there is less exposure, but still a high rate of emulation.

Tanski advises that parents limit their children’s movie viewing, especially of R-rated films, which often portray more characters who smoke. “When teens do see movies or TV shows that contain smoking,” she said, “parents should talk with them in an effort to discourage initiation of smoking.”

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