Teen Health: Movies Influence Smoking Behavior

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It may be “natural”—perhaps even grown organically—but tobacco is clearly hazardous to one’s health. Now, researchers have found that exposure to movie scenes featuring smoking may heighten a teenager’s risk of becoming an established smoker—one who will smoke at least 100 cigarettes in his or her lifetime. The study appears in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Previous studies have found that more exposure to smoking in movies increases teens’ risk of starting to smoke. But “not all adolescents who try smoking go on to become dependent smokers,” the authors write. “Half of high school seniors have tried smoking at some time, but only 7% are current daily smokers of half a pack or more. Little is known about the factors that discriminate adolescents who progress to dependent smoking from those who do not.”


James D. Sargent, MD, and colleagues at Dartmouth Medical School surveyed 6,522 U.S. adolescents ages 10 to 14 about their smoking and movie-watching habits in 2003. The researchers coded displays of smoking in 532 hit movies in the five years prior to the survey. They then asked the teens if they had seen a random selection of 50 of these films.

The researchers measured smoking exposure by adding the number of smoking occurrences in the films participants had seen, dividing it by the number of occurrences in the 50 movies and multiplying the sum by the number of smoking episodes in all 532 movies. Follow-up interviews to reassess smoking status were conducted after 8 months, 16 months and 2 years.

At the beginning of the study, 90% of the teens had never smoked, while 0.5% had smoked more than 100 cigarettes. By the two-year follow-up survey, 125 of the participants had become established smokers. Adolescents who were below the midpoint of movie smoking exposure were less likely than teens who were above the midpoint to have smoked more than 100 cigarettes. The association remained significant after the researchers considered other factors related to teen smoking, including age, smoking by a parent or friend, and sensation-seeking qualities.

The exact mechanism for the movie/smoking link is unclear, the authors note.

“The context of current theory and research suggests the most plausible explanation is that frequent exposure to smoking cues in movies leads to more positive expectancies about effects of smoking, more favorable perceptions of smokers and a greater tendency to affiliate with teens who smoke—all factors that increase risk for smoking,” they write.

“Combined with previous findings showing that young persons who view more smoking in movies are at increased risk for initiating cigarette smoking, the present findings heighten concern about the public-health implications of movie-smoking exposure by linking it with an outcome that predicts smoking-related morbidity and mortality in the future.” 

Please see the Health Section of our organic blog for more information on recent studies and adolescent health.

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