Hollywood Uplink – July 2009: Smoking in Movies: Big Risk Factor for Teens!

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July 2009

Issue: 18:07

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Smoking in Movies: Big Risk Factor for Teens!
By Dick Rolfe, CEO – The Dove Foundation

“Smoking in movies is a risk factor for smoking initiation among US adolescents. Limiting exposure of young adolescents to movie smoking could have important public health implications.” So says the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Our results provide strong evidence that viewing smoking in movies promotes smoking initiation among adolescents,” concludes the Department of Pediatrics, Dartmouth Medical School.

What could have caused these two worthy medical organizations to offer such “biased” findings…especially since the experts in Hollywood have proclaimed for years that anti-social portrayals in movies don’t impact the behavior in audience members in the slightest? Any filmmaker will tell you categorically that social conduct influences movie content, not the other way around.

The latest study, reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, suggests that the influence of movies may undo some of the positive effects of team sports.

Among the more than 2,000 9 to 14-year-olds researchers followed for seven years, those who were not involved in team sports as teens were twice as likely to smoke.

However, when the researchers looked at participants’ exposure to smoking in the movies, they found evidence of media influences among all teenagers, whether they played sports or not.

The bottom line for parents is that although sports can decrease the odds their kids will smoke, media images still have a strong impact, according to Dr. Anna M. Adachi-Mejia and colleagues at Dartmouth Medical School.

Even after considering other factors known to influence smoking, the study found that adolescents with the highest exposure to movie smoking were 2.6 times more likely to try it compared to those with the lowest exposure.

The November issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that, according to a study paid for by the National Cancer Institute, about 10 percent of all adolescents had tried smoking. However, 38 out of every 100 adolescents who tried smoking did so because they saw smoking portrayed in movies.

A push to give an “R” rating to all movies that depict smoking

Why? Every year, nearly 400,000 kids start smoking due to the influence of movies. The finding was highlighted at this week’s meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held Oct. 7-10 in Atlanta.

After accounting for factors linked to smoking behavior and movie-going frequency, they find that kids who see the most onscreen smoking are more than 2.5 times more likely to start smoking than kids who see the least onscreen smoking.

The numbers are striking. “Kids who watched very few movies hardly smoked at all. But among the 5% of kids who saw the most onscreen smoking, 40% had started smoking themselves.”

There’s less smoking in movies than there used to be. But this is mostly due to less smoking in movies already rated “R” or higher. In youth-rated movies, there’s been no less smoking.

Sargent — backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics — strongly urges the film industry to adopt four rules proposed by the University of California, San Francisco “Smokefreemovies” campaign:

  • Movies that portray smoking should be rated “R.”

  • Movies should certify that they received nothing of value from anyone in exchange for portraying tobacco use or tobacco products.

  • Movies should run strong antismoking ads before any film that portrays smoking or tobacco products.

  • Movies should ban the display of any brand of tobacco.

How does it happen that teens are so easily influenced by actors on the big screen? “Part of the reason that exposure to movie smoking has such a considerable impact on adolescent smoking is because it is a very strong social influence on kids ages 10-14,” said James Sargent, a pediatrics professor at the school and lead author of the study.

What impact does good parenting and teaching good values in the home have compared with exposure to smoking in the movies? “Because movie exposure to smoking is so pervasive, its impact on this age group outweighs whether peers or parents smoke, or whether the child is involved in other extracurricular activities, like sports,” replies Sargent. He concludes, “No child is immune to the influence of smoking in movies.”

What other ways do movies influence behavior?

If this is true of smoking, what does it say about the movies’ impact on other social behaviors, like premarital sex, or drug and alcohol use? There are a myriad of studies that draw parallels between the frequency of exposure to such behavior in movies and similar behavior exhibited in the lives of adolescents and teenagers.

A desire to belong is one of the primary motivators on their social needs list. We have only to look back to our own youthful days and remember the importance we placed on clothing trends, popular hangouts, and winning approval from the “right” crowd.

As adults, we must face the fact that our children are influenced by many factors outside the home. It’s not enough to teach good values. It is also important to discourage exposure to bad behavior in movies and television programs where consequences like cancer, and drug, alcohol or tobacco addiction are rarely, if ever, shown. One way is to guide and monitor their movie attendance.

Humorist Erma Bombeck once offered some practical advice when she said, “I would never allow someone in my television set that I wouldn’t invite into my home.

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