Smoking in movies

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Q: I’ve seen news stories about the dangers of kids seeing smoking in movies. I’m a bit confused, as I no longer thought smoking was really an issue, especially in kids’ movies (G, PG, PG-13) and that smoking in general, is on the decline. Is this something I should still be concerned about when I take my 10-year-old to the movies?

~Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Boston, MA

A: Dear Smoke,

You are right to be concerned about your child seeing smoking in movies, because the US Surgeon General has concluded that the research shows a causal relationship between portrayals of smoking seen in movies and the initiation of tobacco use among young people. Numerous research studies have shown that when all other factors are controlled for, seeing portrayals of smoking in the movies more than doubles the risk that a young person will start using tobacco. Smoking is often used by filmmakers as narrative shorthand for rebelliousness and sexiness, or just to make a scene look cool with backlit smoke. Tobacco use in a movie, by any character, good or bad, normalizes it as acceptable behavior and, because it is being done by a star, conveys attractiveness and glamour to intensely self-conscious youth yearning to be accepted.

Despite our knowledge that movies are now the strongest motivator of smoking initiation among youth, 26% of all youth-rated movies, and 35% of PG-13 movies, portrayed tobacco use in 2016. Public health initiatives like Smoke Free Movies  have actively worked for nearly 2 decades to prevent the initiation of smoking among young persons by reducing movie portrayals of tobacco use. Because of these efforts, the six major motion picture production companies now have policies to reduce tobacco imagery, which they have publicized well, thus your impression that it is no longer an issue. The good news is that the percentage of G, PG and PG-13 rated movies that were smokefree increased from 35% to 74% between 2002 and 2016. But from 2010-2016, the number of scenes of tobacco smoking in top-grossing movies increased by 72%, from 1,824 to 3,145, with 2016 showing an 80% increase of tobacco scenes from the year before.

Because fewer tickets are sold to R-rated movies, the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has not agreed to demands that smoking in a movie receive an automatic R, thus protecting those too young to legally buy cigarettes from the tobacco industry’s most effective marketing tool. We cannot rely on the rating system or the best intentions of movie studios to protect children from the powerful influence of smoking in movies, but we can protect them with mindful media consumption:

  • Choose movies using research-based, health-focused resources as well as film reviews. Websites such as Smoke Free Movies, provides information on smoking references in all theatrically released movies. The Center on Media and Child Health offers information and tip sheets on substance use portrayals in media.
  • Read the descriptor in small type under the MPAA movie rating, although the rating may not reflect it, smoking and images of any substance use should be listed here.
  • Most importantly, talk to your child. Watch movies with your child when possible, and talk about it afterwards. Ask questions such as, Why do you think that character was smoking? How do you think their smoking affects them? and What do you think about that choice?

Ultimately, your child’s knowledge and common sense are her best protection. Rather than accepting it as the norm, you can help her see smoking as an unhealthy, unattractive, and stupid habit. Empower her with knowledge – the best anti-smoking campaigns have been generated by youth themselves. Having open, honest, and regular discussions with your child will help her make informed, healthy decisions for herself, despite what she sees on the silver screen.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~ The Mediatrician

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