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Smoking in films — especially kids movies — on the rise

Many of the movies with significant amounts of smoking were youth-rated films.

Many of the movies with significant amounts of smoking were youth-rated films, such as the animated film “Rango.”
Paramount Pictures

The incidence of onscreen smoking in movies increased from 2010 to 2011, ending what had been a five-year decline, according to a new study published Thursday by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

Many of the movies with significant amounts of smoking were youth-rated films, such as the animated film “Rango” (PG) and “X-Men: First Class” (PG-13).

The study also found that film companies that have publicly declared their intentions to restrict smoking in youth-rated films were among the worst offenders.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, depictions of smoking in movies increases the likelihood that children watching those movies will take up the addictive habit themselves.

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“The reversal in the previous multiyear downward trend in onscreen tobacco use that occurred from 2005 to 2010 means that movies in 2011 contributed more to promoting youth smoking than in previous years and that the motion picture industry is no longer progressing toward the goal of reducing onscreen depictions of tobacco use,” conclude the authors of the new study.

Study’s details

For the study, trained monitors counted all incidents of tobacco use (or implied tobacco use, such as a lit cigarette) in 134 of the top-grossing films of 2011. To be included, the films had to gross enough at the box office to be ranked as a top-10 film for at least a week.

The monitors found that the total number of tobacco incidents in the top-grossing 2011 films totaled 1,881, up 62 from a similar counting done in 2010, despite there being five fewer films in the 2011 sample.

Overall, the incidents-per-film increased an average of 7 percent, from 13.1 to 14.0.  The incidents rose an average of 7 percent among R-rated films (from 26.0 to 27.8), 9 percent among PG-13-rated films (from 10.7 to 11.6), and a whopping 311 percent among G- and PG-rated films (from 0.8 to 3.2).

Interestingly, the study found that increases in onscreen smoking were more likely in films made by companies with publicly announced policies aimed at discouraging (but not eliminating) smoking in their movies (Comcast, Disney and Time Warner) than in those without such policies (Viacom, Sony and News Corp). “Companies with policies on average had 7.6 more tobacco incidents per youth-rated movie in 2011 than in 2010, to average 8.5 incidents per movie in 2011, while companies without policies had 1.3 fewer incidents, to average 11.9 incidents per movie in 2011,” the study’s authors report.

And, yes, some of the movies that showed the most tobacco incidents were set in time periods when smoking was ubiquitous (such as “The Help” and “Midnight in Paris”), but others were not (“Green Hornet” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part I”).

The study doesn’t make clear, however, how many of the 2011 movies were period films compared to those in the 2010 sample — a factor that could explain the results. Also, I’m wondering how many of the incidents of tobacco use were done by the films’ villains, and, if so, whether that kind of depiction has a different impact on children than smoking done by the films’ protagonists.

The study’s recommendations

The study’s authors offer several recommendations for making sure that gratuitous tobacco use does not appear in films that reach children. All movies that depict smoking or other uses of tobacco should be given an R rating, they say — except when the presentation of tobacco “clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use or is necessary to represent the smoking of a real historical figure.”

They also recommend that an anti-tobacco message be shown before any movie with tobacco imagery — whether that showing is occurring in a movie theater, on TV, on the Internet or on a DVD.

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In addition, filmmakers should certify that they have not received payments from tobacco companies for depicting tobacco, and they should stop showing specific tobacco brands in their films. In 2011, the study’s authors point out, Marlboro, Copenhagen, Camel and Kool brands were used by lead actors and a supporting actor in five of the top-grossing films.

Finally, the researchers recommend that state health departments start working with policymakers to limit film companies’ eligibility for state subsidies to only those productions that are tobacco-free.

The study was funded by the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that was created in 1999 as a result of the national settlement state governments reached with tobacco companies to recover tobacco-related health-care costs. It appears in Preventing Chronic Disease, a journal published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.