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>  News Releases >   2001 >   March

Dartmouth researchers find that teens are influenced by movie star smokers

Posted 03/02/01

Adolescents whose favorite movie stars smoke on-screen are significantly more likely to be smokers themselves and to have a more accepting attitude toward smoking than adolescents who prefer non-smoking stars, according to a new study. A team from Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School has published the results of their study linking teenage smoking behavior to that portrayed by popular movie stars in the March 2001 issue of Tobacco Control,a scientific journal devoted to smoking issues published by the British Medical Journal.

The research, coordinated by Jennifer J. Tickle of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, found that teens whose favorite stars smoked in two films during the period of the study were 1.5 times more likely to be smokers themselves or view smoking as socially acceptable, while those whose favorite stars smoked in three or more films were three times as likely to do so. And, the more a star portrayed smoking in a movie, the more likely the adolescent was to view smoking favorably. Among teens who had never smoked, those who chose stars who smoked in three or more films were 16 times as likely to express positive opinions about smoking than those who chose non-smoking characters.

"Adolescents look to movie stars as role models, and this research indicates that adolescent health behavior may be directly affected by movie star behavior," said Tickle. "Stars portray images that are desirable to teenagers, and when these stars smoke, adolescents may see that as integral to the image and may then take up the behavior."

Senior investigator Todd Heatherton, Associate Professor in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, added, "Although a causal link has yet to be shown, this research does suggest that how smoking is portrayed in movies may be an important factor in teenage smoking."

Almost two-thirds of the 43 movie stars in question used tobacco at least once on-screen during the period of the study. And four out of 10 portrayed smoking as an essential character trait in one or more films. Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone and John Travolta had the highest number of "smoker" roles, portraying smoking in four films over the period of the study.

Teenagers, aged 10 to 19, were surveyed in 1996 about their smoking habits and their attitudes to smoking. They were also asked to name their favorite movie star. Altogether, 632 students from five rural New England schools took part. Based on the survey answers, researchers carefully assessed the behavior of 43 actors and actresses in movies that were released between 1994 and 1996. Click here for more information. The study was funded by grants from the National Cancer Institute.

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