Glamorous film stars who light-up on screen 'encourage children to take up smoking'
'Children start to see ways that smoking might make them seem more like a movie-star'
11:13 GMT, 9 July 2012
Children who watch a lot of movies with cigarette-smoking characters are more likely to take up the habit themselves, according to a study.
Recent popular films from the PG-rated Rango to the 12A-rated The Help include characters who smoke. Researchers said the study participants, who were aged 10 to 14, responded to the smoking in films whatever their rating.
Glamourising Scarlett Johansson smokes in a number of her films. She is seen here in the 2005 Lost in Translation
Lead author Dr James Sargent, from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, New Hampshire, said their findings suggest it's the smoking itself, rather than sex or violence in films for older viewers, that influenced young people.
'Movie smoking seems to be just as impactful if it's packaged in a PG-13 movie as opposed to an R movie,' said Dr James Sargent, from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
'I really think it's a ‘cool' factor. The more they see it, the more they start to see ways that (smoking) might make them seem more movie-star,' he said.
Films with an R rating in the U.S are for viewers aged 17 and over unless they have a guardian with them.
Dr Sargent and his colleagues counted how many times a character was seen smoking in each of over 500 box-office hits from recent years. Then, they asked 6,500 U.S. kids ages 10 to 14 which of a random selection of 50 of those movies they had watched.
The average 'dose' of movie smoking was 275 scenes from films rated PG-13 and 93 scenes from R movies, the researchers reported in Pediatrics.
Ashtrays grace most tables in the film The Help based in the 1960s
The PG-rated cartoon Rango was slammed by anti-smoking campaigners with more than 60 instances of characters puffing away
Three subsequent interviews with the children found those who had watched smoking-heavy movies were more likely to pick up the habit themselves.
For each extra 500 smoking shots reported in their initial survey, youth were 33 to 49 per cent more likely to try cigarettes over the next two years.
The effect of on-screen smoking was not significantly different for PG-13 and R films. As children tend to see more PG-13 flicks, Dr Sargent's team calculated that if smoking automatically earned an R rating, the number of youngsters who try cigarettes would drop by 18 per cent.
Dr Brian Primack at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said: 'At this point, it is established that exposure to smoking in movies is a potent risk factor for actually taking up smoking, especially when the exposures are early.
'This study goes a step further and suggests that taking smoking out of all PG-13 movies could have a palpable effect on the impact of smoking in the U.S.,' he added.
However, Matthew Farrelly, from the scientific institute RTI in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, said while a link between on-screen smoking and trying cigarettes 'makes sense', he said 'I just think the relationship has been vastly overstated.'
All the researchers agreed, however, that the new findings mean parents should be paying attention to what their kids are seeing in movie theaters and on TV.
'Parents have to treat their kids' media diet the same way they treat their food diet,' Dr Sargent said.
That means paying attention to movie ratings and possibly setting TV controls to block out age-inappropriate material, he added.
Sargent recommended youth watch no more than two movies a week and called for 'no R-rated movies until kids are well into adolescence.'