New study says movies influence teen smoking

by Lauren Lafaro

HANOVER, N.H. — What do movie stars Brad Pitt, Sharon Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio all have in common? According to one new study, they might influence teenagers to smoke by playing characters who use tobacco.
While a number of social influences on smoking have already been examined — such as peer pressure — the link between movies and smoking is relatively uncharted territory. But Dr. James Sargent, M.D., thinks he has found a connection.
“Visual Media Influences on Adolescent Smoking Behavior,” a recently released study by Dartmouth Medical School, is the first part of a series of studies intended to show the correlation between adolescent smoking and smoking on screen.
“Lots of people have looked at obvious influences, like friends, but no one has ever looked very hard at the influence of media,” said Sargent, the principal investigator for the research project.
“Knowing what we know about adolescents and how much media they consume, and the amount of smoking in media, we decided to examine the correlation,” Sargent continued.
The first stage of the study, an analysis of tobacco use in over 500 major motion pictures released between 1990 and 1999, provides a guideline for rating movies according to the amount of tobacco usage they portray and the attitudes surrounding it.
Not surprisingly, more then half the movies studied featured tobacco use by a major character. Females who smoked on screen were found to be associated with sexual affairs, illegal activities and reckless driving. Male smokers tended to be associated with violent behavior and dangerous acts.
This analysis was used in the second stage of the study. The researchers surveyed adolescents about both their current smoking behavior and their favorite movie stars.
The researchers then scored the amount of tobacco in the movies the adolescents had been exposed to.
“We have a very media-aware adolescent population, especially due to home videos,” Sargent said. “This exposure is part of the reason we are suggesting that the additional input has increased the tendency to use tobacco.”
Of the teenagers surveyed, 44.7 percent were nonsmokers, 34.8 percent reported they were experimental smokers, and 20.4 percent said they were smokers. The subjects chose 43 different actors. Of those, 25 never portrayed smoking. Some of the more popular actors however — Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sharon Stone — have smoked in a number of their movies.
The researchers found, after controlling for other factors, the odds of higher adolescent smoking behavior was greater in those adolescents who chose smoking stars.
“We are finding adolescents are exposed to a lot of inappropriate behavior that parents need to be alerted about,” Sargent said. “But it’s hard to control; kids really want to see these films, and the movie industry kind of winks about it.”
Sargent and his colleagues are currently working on another survey in which they will ask 6,000 adolescents what movies they have seen, and then use the first component of the study to score these movies for tobacco usage.
The first two components of the study were presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies on May 13 in Boston.
The researchers plan to publish the studies soon.