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CDC: Smoking scenes in movies — particularly PG-13 ones — have soared in recent years 

Between 2010 and 2018 the onscreen use of tobacco climbed 57 percent in all films and 120 percent in PG-13-rated films.

movie theater
In PG-13-rated movies, “tobacco incidents” have jumped by a startling 120 percent.
Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash

Depictions of cigarette smoking and other uses of tobacco in youth-rated movies rose dramatically in recent years, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study found that “tobacco incidents” — scenes in which one or more characters uses some form of tobacco (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, hookahs, smokless tobacco products or electronic cigarettes) — increased by almost 60 percent in all movies released between 2010 and 2018.

In PG-13-rated movies, those incidents jumped by a startling 120 percent.

This is a hugely discouraging finding. As the CDC researchers point out, research has shown that the more often young people are exposed to onscreen images of smoking, the greater the likelihood they will take up smoking themselves.

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In surveys taken in 2018, almost 2 percent of middle-school students (1 in 50) and 8 percent of high school students (2 in 25) reported smoking cigarettes at least once within the previous 30 days.

While the numbers are down significantly from a decade ago, any progress has been essentially erased by the rising use of electronic cigarettes among teens. In those same 2018 surveys, about 1 in 20 middle-school students (4.9 percent) and nearly 1 in 5 high school students (20.8 percent) reported using e-cigarettes at least once within the previous month.

All major movie companies already have policies that limit images of tobacco use in their youth-rated movies, the CDC researchers point out, and the paid placement of tobacco brands in movies (and in television and video games) has been prohibited for about 20 years.

But only two companies — Disney and Viacom — had no tobacco images in their youth-rated movies in 2018.

“Public health groups have suggested interventions to reduce tobacco imagery in movies, such as the Motion Picture Association of America assigning an R rating to any movie with tobacco imagery, unless it portrays an actual historical figure who used tobacco or depicts the negative effects of tobacco use,” the CDC researchers write.

“Research suggests that such an R rating, in coordination with additional interventions, could help eliminate tobacco incidents in youth-rated movies and reduce youth cigarette smoking by an estimated 18%,” they add.

Study details

For their study, the CDC researchers used data collected by University of California-San Francisco’s Onscreen Tobacco Database and the organization Breathe California Sacramento Region. They looked at the number of times tobacco use occurred in top-grossing movies (ones that were ranked in the top 10 during the week of their release).

As already noted, the data revealed that between 2010 and 2018 the onscreen use of tobacco climbed 57 percent in all films and 120 percent in PG-13-rated films.

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In 2018, about a third of the 84 top-grossing youth-rated movies (G, PG or PG-13) showed people using tobacco.

The biggest jump, however, was in PG-13-rated biographical dramas, which saw scenes involving tobacco skyrocket by 233 percent between 2010 and 2018. Those dramas accounted for 82 percent of all tobacco incidents in PG-13-rated movies in 2018.

Interestingly, most of the characters shown using tobacco products in biographical dramas were fictional characters inserted into the stories, not people who actually existed.

The study also found that the changes between 2010 and 2018 in the number of youth-rated movies with tobacco-use scenes varied widely by movie company.

“During this period, tobacco incidents dropped from 10 to zero in movies from Disney and from 115 to zero in Viacom movies, and declined from 198 to 86 in Sony movies,” the CDC researchers write.

Number of tobacco incidents in PG-13–rated movies, by genre — United States, 2010–2018
Number of tobacco incidents in PG-13–rated movies, by genre — United States, 2010–2018
But those declines were more than offset by what was happening in movies released by other companies. Between 2010 and 2018, scenes depicting tobacco use climbed by 200 percent (96 to 327) in Fox youth-rated movies, for example, by 600 percent (four to 29) in Time Warner youth-rated movies, and by a whopping 2,900 percent (19 to 573) in Comcast youth-rated movies.

Change could save lives

The CDC researchers urge the movie industry to take steps to reduce the exposure of young people to tobacco imagery.

As a starting point, “studios could limit tobacco use in biographical dramas to real persons who actually used tobacco,” they write.

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The researchers also join other anti-smoking advocates in a call for changes in the way movies are rated.

“Assigning all movies with tobacco incidents an R rating could eliminate tobacco product imagery from youth-rated films, which could further reduce initiation of tobacco product use among U.S. youths,” they stress.

And that would save lives. Movies with smoking will lead to 2 million smoking deaths among today’s youth, according to researchers for the University of California, San Francisco’s Smoke-Free Movies project. If all movies with smoking were given an R rating, those deaths would be cut in half, by 1 million, the UCSF researchers add.

FMI:  The CDC study was published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, where it can be read in full.