Dartmouth researchers study trends in how movies depict cigarette use

Hanover, NH – Dartmouth researchers have determined that youth-rated movies contain more images of cigarette smoking than R-rated films. A report of the findings, called "Trends in Movie Tobacco Use: 1996-2004," was issued today by the American Legacy Foundation, which funded the research with the National Cancer Institute.

"Because movie smoking is linked to adolescent smoking, it was important to us to clearly and quantitatively understand how and when cigarette use is depicted on screen," says James Sargent, a pediatrician and professor at Dartmouth Medical School and the Director of Cancer Control at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Sargent and his colleagues studied the 100 highest grossing movies each year from 1996-2004, identifying that although smoking on screen has decreased over time, it was still depicted in 75 percent of youth-rated films in 2004, including G-, PG- and PG-13-rated movies. The images of smoking in these movies have a much greater potential to reach youth audiences, because they are seen by three times as many youths than R-rated movies. The study also revealed that, overall, the proportion of movies containing cigarette use or imagery declined from 96 percent in 1996 to 77 percent in 2004.

"While we do see a downward trend in movie smoking, which is encouraging from a public health perspective, we need to remember that youths continue to see smoking in most of the movies they see," says Sargent.

To further decrease the access that adolescents have to smoking scenes and depictions, the authors recommend an R rating for all movies with smoking. The authors say that an R-rating for smoking could reduce potential exposure of youth to movie smoking in new releases by about 50 percent, resulting in a substantial reduction in exposure over time. The American Legacy Foundation report was co-authored by Sargent, Keilah Worth and Susanne Tanski, all at Dartmouth.

Sargent and his colleagues study adolescent behavior and how it's linked to exposure to movies. They have published numerous papers and articles describing how adolescents are exposed to thousands of depictions of smoking by movie stars, and these images influence their attitudes and behaviors regarding smoking.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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