Cigarette Smoking in Movies Influences Teens

Cigarette Smoking in Movies Influences Teens

Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School have found that movie characters who smoke cigarettes—regardless of whether they are heroes or villains—influence teens to try smoking. Susanne Tanski, the lead author of the study, said that previous studies have found a link between smoking in movies and the initiation of smoking by adolescents, and she and her colleagues wanted to “dig deeper into the data to see if the type of character who is smoking matters. Is it the ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ that have more of an influence?”

Tanski, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School, said that “bad guys” are more often smokers in movies, but that there are usually more “good guys” than “bad guys.” “Episode for episode, youth who saw negative characters 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.

The study also found that low-risk teens, based on sensation-seeking behavior, are more strongly influenced by “bad guy” smoking. “This suggests that it’s alluring for ‘good’ kids to emulate the ‘bad’ characters on the movie screen,” said Tanski.

Tanski and colleagues at Dartmouth College and Medical School have been studying the connection between popular culture and risky behavior in adolescents. They have published several journal articles documenting the link between exposure to smoking and drinking in movies and teens using the substances.

In May 2009, two members of the team published a research letter that reported declining trends in both occurrences of smoking in movies and smoking among US eighth graders between 1996 and 2007. The authors state, “Movie smoking represents only one of several factors that contribute to youth smoking trends, including the marketing of tobacco, price of cigarettes, restrictions imposed by the Master Settlement Agreement in 1999, and state prevention programs…Nonetheless, the downward trend in movie smoking is consistent with an influence on downward trends in adolescent smoking.”

Tanski acknowledges that although there is a downward trend, smoking still occurs in many movies that teens watch, particularly given the accessibility to “older” movies through movie channels and video rental services. “Parents should limit movie viewing and specifically restrict access to R-rated movies, which tend to contain more smoking,” she said. “When teens do see movies or TV shows that contain smoking, parents should talk with them in an effort to discourage initiation of smoking.”

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