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The danger of smoking in films

Published May 31, 2004; Category: DARTMOUTH MEDICAL SCHOOL

In Senate committee hearing, professor warns of risks

On May 11, Madeline Dalton, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School, testified at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that smoking in films significantly increases the risk of adolescent smoking initiation.

The Congressional committee hearing was called "Smoking in the Movies," and was organized to discuss whether tobacco use in films prompts children or adolescents to smoke. Other witnesses were Stanton Glantz, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco; J. Joseph Curran Jr., State Attorney General of Maryland; LeVar Burton, Co-Chair of the Social Responsibility Task Force of the Director's Guild of America; Steven Yerrid, an attorney of the Yerrid Law Firm who helped the state of Florida win a lawsuit against the tobacco industry; and Jack Valenti, Chief Executive Officer of the Motion Picture Association of America.

"I think the hearing helped to raise people's awareness that smoking in movies can influence adolescent behavior."

- Madeline Dalton

According to Dalton, people are most likely to begin smoking when they are 10-15 years old.

"If we can prevent children from smoking until they reach their 18th birthday, then their chance of becoming an addicted smoker is very low," Dalton said in her testimony. This is crucial because smoking "kills over 400,000 people in the U.S. each year, which is more than the number of deaths caused by alcohol, illicit drugs, motor vehicles, sexual activity and firearms combined."

Dalton has studied the influence of behavioral and social risk factors for adolescent smoking for nine years. She and co-investigators from DMS and the College have published numerous studies, including the effects of parental disapproval of smoking and media restrictions.

The group has identified films as a strong risk factor for adolescent smoking.

"Movies not only depict modern societal norms and styles, they help to define them," Dalton said. This becomes a problem when most of the popular contemporary films - 85 percent of the 600 box-office hits the research group studied - depict smoking, many of them associating it with "characteristics many adolescents find appealing, such as toughness, sexiness, and rebelliousness."

Dalton and her group surveyed about 5,000 adolescents who were 10-14 years of age at 14 middle schools in Northern New England. The students were asked about their smoking behavior and film viewing, and other relevant factors, like family and friends, and academic performance. Those who were non-smokers - more than 2,600 students - were contacted again one to two years later to ask if they had begun smoking.

The result was that, even after taking into account factors like personality and family and peer relationships, adolescents who saw the most smoking in films were 2.7 times more likely to try smoking than those who viewed the least amount, Dalton said.

Eliminating or reducing adolescents' exposure to smoking in movies could significantly reduce the number who start smoking, Dalton said in her testimony.

"It was an honor to be invited to testify at the hearing and I appreciated the opportunity to present our research to the senators," she said. "I think the hearing helped to raise people's awareness that smoking in movies can influence adolescent behavior."


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Last Updated: 12/17/08