Smoking: The Movies vs. Real Life

Think about some of your favorite movies. Were the characters smoking in these movies? Why would I ask such a weird question? Here’s an interesting relationship to ponder: does exposure to smoking in our media lead to increased probability of picking up the habit? The Surgeon General, many researchers, and the leading health organizations say that, for impressionable adolescents, it does.

The Surgeon General released a report a few years back concluding that there is a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking among young persons.  In other words, the more youth see smoking on screen, the more likely they are to start smoking. Youth who are heavily exposed to onscreen smoking imagery are approximately two to three times as likely to begin smoking as are youth who receive less exposure.  That means that exposure to on-screen smoking recruits over 1/3 of all new young smokers! Considering tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, this is a big deal.

The U.S. film industry has known about the risk from exposure and the public health value of the R rating since this study was published in 2003. Under pressure from health groups and state attorneys general, some major studios reduced smoking in youth-rated (less than an R rating) films 60% between 2005 and 2010. A report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that progress in reducing tobacco imagery in PG-13 movies stalled after 2010 (in fact the number of PG-13 films with actors smoking jumped from 564 in 2010 to 809 in 2016). In this report, the CDC has projected that exposure to on-screen smoking will recruit more than 6 million U.S. children to smoke, of whom 2 million will die prematurely from tobacco-induced cancer, heart disease, lung disease, or stroke.

Based on this, a coalition of the nation’s most influential healthcare organizations (including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, etc) has demanded that movie producers, distributors, and exhibitors apply an R rating to all films that include depictions of smoking or tobacco by June, 2018. The updated R rating guidelines, as described in the letter written by this coalition, would apply to all movies with smoking except those that “exclusively portray actual people who used tobacco (as in documentaries or biographical dramas) or that depict the serious health consequences of tobacco use.” By voluntarily implementing policies that require R ratings for smoking, it’s projected that the film industry can avert 1 million tobacco deaths among today’s children.

What are your thoughts on the link between smoking in movies and smoking in real life?