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Kids and Tobacco Addiction: Are Movie Studios Doing Enough?

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Hollywood movies are one of the most powerful vehicles for glamorizing and promoting smoking, especially for young people. It all started in the Golden Age, when tobacco companies began marketing cigarettes on-screen to unsuspecting moviegoers. Today, cigarette placement in movies is alive and well because it works.

In a recent study, teenagers were divided into four groups according to their exposure to on-screen smoking. Teens in the group with the highest exposure to smoking were three times more likely to try smoking and teens whose favorite stars smoke in movies were 16 times more likely to have a positive attitude toward smoking.

Big Tobacco's marketing experts and independent researchers agree. Moving stories with charismatic actors are a powerful way to attract new smokers and keep current smokers.

But it’s not just American kids who are influenced. Studies in Germany and Mexico joined numerous U.S. research that showed a causal correlation between the amount of smoking imagery in U.S. films and the likelihood of young teenagers lighting up.

For instance, Marlboros have featured in at least 74 of Hollywood's top-grossing movies over the past 15 years. Tobacco's screen time in PG-13 movies and videos has increased 50 percent since the tobacco industry agreed to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement that barred marketing tobacco to youth. In 2002 alone, smoking was found in 68.5 percent of all youth-rated (G, PG, PG-13) movies. In 2005, smoking on screen reached an all time high.

“Cigarette smoking is a major contributing factor to many chronic health problems that we see in society today, including heart disease, cancer, dementia and other forms of cognitive decline and low birth weight babies,” said Dr. Ted Schettler, science director at the Science & Environmental Health Network in Ames, Iowa. “And adolescent smoking increases the risk of lifetime smoking.”

In the U.S., the average age of smoking initiation is around 12.5 years. This is an important factor to addiction because a teen brain is still developing. Recent research showed that nicotine from one cigarette is enough to saturate the nicotine receptors of the human brain, making it easier for teens to become addicted at a faster rate and at a stronger level than adults.

Research conducted in 1999 by University of California, Irvine suggested that showing an anti-smoking advertisement to youth before a film containing smoking could effectively reposition the smoking from forbidden (a positive) to tainted (a negative) activity. The study caught the attention of 41 state attorney generals who called on the studios to place anti-smoking ads on any DVD or movie that includes smoking.

So in 2006, the California Health and Human Services Agency, the Department of Public Health and the Entertainment Industry Foundation and six major Hollywood studios (Sony Pictures, Universal Studios, Warner Bros. Studio, Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures) decided to fight fire with fire by committing to placing the state’s anti-smoking advertisements on youth-rated movies released in DVD format through 2009. But are studios and actors doing enough to steer kids away from tobacco use?

In 2007, the Harvard School of Public Health, invited by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to make recommendations on the tobacco question, and advised the U.S. film industry to "eliminate the depiction of tobacco smoking from films accessible to children and youth."

Since 2007, the Motion Picture Association of America has considered smoking as a factor in its rating system, noting when cigarette use has affected the rating. For example, the PG-13 rating for "Avatar" included "some smoking."

"This ensures specific information is front and center for parents as they make decisions for their kids," the group said in a statement.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, she pens Nonsmoking Nation, a blog following global tobacco news and events.

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EmpowHER Guest

I completely agree that Hollywood glamorizes the use many harmful substances, however, I can never fully wrap my mind around how we can completely discount personal accountability of the person who decides to use. If they are minor, then I believe that the responsibility lies upon the parent of the prospective addict.
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January 18, 2011 - 1:24pm
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