WATCHING CHARACTERS smoke in movies is the single most powerful pro-smoking influence for children: It accounts for 44 percent of kids who smoke pick up a cigarette for the first time, according to an analysis of four separate studies.
That’s why it is good news that the number of smoking incidents in movies has steadily gone down in the last few years, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco. The study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that among the top-grossing movies released in the United States between 1991 and 2009, smoking incidents peaked at around 4,000 in 2005 and have since dropped by half, to a little below 2,000 for 2009. Last year was also the first time that just over one half of top-grossing movies didn’t show any tobacco use at all. Encouragingly, and perhaps partly as a result, the nationwide rates of trying cigarettes among high-school students dropped from 54 percent in 2005 to 46 percent in 2009.
The trend is positive and suggests that pressure on studios to eliminate smoking in movies is paying off. But there is still much to be done. Last year, 54 percent of top-grossing movies rated PG-13 still contained smoking imagery.
The World Health Organization, the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association are among many organizations calling for a new policy that would assign an R rating to movies that depict smoking. Since research has shown that youth-rated movies are more profitable than R-rated movies, the idea is to encourage movie studios to design smoke-free PG and PG-13 movies if they want to keep that rating.
The policy makes sense — with some conditions. It would not apply to depictions of real historical figures — say, Winston Churchill — so directors need not worry about losing authenticity in those types of movies. (Advocates might consider consider extending that exemption to historical fiction.) The reality, though, is that many lives could be saved. Consider, for example, Massachusetts: among the current 49,000 12 to 17-year olds in the state who smoke, 25,000 were recruited by watching movies, the University of California San Francisco team estimates. Of those 25,000, a dismaying 8,000 stand to die from tobacco-related disease. It’s hard to think of another intervention that would prevent such devastation so inexpensively.