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First national study on kids and smoking in movies has major impact

James Sargent
James Sargent

The movie industry is feeling the heat from a new smoking study by researchers from Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) and Norris Cotton Cancer Center (NCCC) that confirms that adolescents who watch smoking in movies are more likely to try smoking cigarettes. Appearing in the Nov. 7 issue of the journal Pediatrics, the national study concluded that almost 40 percent of kids tried smoking cigarettes because they were strongly influenced by scenes that contained smoking in movies.

The research, supported by the National Cancer Institute, adds to what is now a strong scientific basis for current public health campaigns to reduce U.S. adolescents' exposure to smoking in movies. Attorneys general from 32 states, citing the DMS study and its coverage in news outlets around the world, sent a letter to movie studios requesting that they provide anti-smoking public service announcements on DVDs that show smoking.

"Part of the reason that exposure to smoking in the movies has such a considerable impact on adolescent smoking is because it is a very strong social influence on kids ages 10 to 14," said lead author James Sargent, Professor of Pediatrics at DMS and Director of the Cancer Control Research Program at NCCC. "Its impact on this age group outweighs whether peers or parents smoke or whether the child is involved other activities, like sports."

In the study, 6,522 U.S. adolescents aged 10 to 14 were asked to identify films they had seen from a list of 50 randomly selected titles released in the United States from 1998 to 2000. Researchers found examples of smoking in most of the movies. Even after considering all other factors known to influence smoking risk, DMS researchers found that adolescents with the highest exposure to smoking in movies were 2.6 times more likely to take up smoking compared to those with the lowest exposure. All else being equal, the researchers found that of 100 adolescents who tried smoking, 38 did so because of their exposure to smoking in movies.

The study confirms the results of a regionalized study by the researchers that focused on adolescents in Northern New England, to be published Dec. 15 in the British Medical Journal. The data in that research showed that exposure to smoking in movies had a similar impact on first-time cigarette smoking, but the children interviewed were predominantly Caucasians living in mostly rural areas, so the results could not be applied to the rest of the country.

"This is a powerful confirmatory study that shows that kids react the same way nationwide," said Sargent. "It means that no child is immune to the influence of smoking in movies."

The ethnicity of participants was also taken into account. This large national research sample found that Hispanic and black youths were exposed to significantly more movie smoking than their Caucasian counterparts, so the population impact may be larger in minorities.

"The finding on minorities is concerning, since smoking in movies may have a greater impact in these populations," said co-author Linda Titus-Ernstoff, Professor of Community and Family Medicine at DMS.

"No child is immune to the influence of smoking in movies."

- James Sargent

The researchers suggest several ways to reduce teens' exposure to movie smoking. "As a pediatrician, I think that parents need to become more aware of what their young children watch and make an effort to shield young children from the messages in PG-13 and R rated movies," said Sargent.

The team also hopes that, in light of their new research, the movie industry will be persuaded to voluntarily reduce depictions of smoking and cigarette brands. They also suggest that the industry incorporate smoking into the rating system and include an anti-smoking preview on all DVDs that depict smoking.

Co-authors of the study, in addition to Sargent and Titus-Ernstoff, are Madeline Dalton, Michael Beach, Jennifer Gibson, Anna Adachi-Mejia, Charles Carusi, Susan Swain and Todd Heatherton. Beach is a member of the anesthesiology department at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Professor of Anesthesiology at DMS, as well as a member of NCCC. Dalton, Adachi-Mejia and Gibson are members of NCCC. Heatherton is a member of Dartmouth's  Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

By ANDREW NORDHOFF

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08