Oscar season is here, and while smoking in the U.S. has been declining for years, you might not realize that by going to the movies. The deadly habit stubbornly remains on movie screens.
Research shows a causal link between movie smoking and youth smoking initiation. Kids – especially teens – are impressionable, and actors lighting up onscreen make smoking look fun and socially acceptable. That sends a message to kids that smoking is okay, exactly the opposite of what parents and educators try to teach them.
Not only does research (including the most recent Surgeon General’s report) show a relationship between cinematic smoking and kids starting, there is also a clear dose effect. This means that the more kids see movie smoking, the greater the chance they will start themselves.
You might be surprised how many current movies rated PG-13 or lower contain smoking. Movie studios work hard to get PG-13 ratings, because they know teenagers and kids are a huge part of the movie-going public. They would lose potential box office earnings with an R rating.
But while depictions of sex and graphic violence – even in some cases profanity – automatically trigger an R rating, smoking, which causes more than 480,000 deaths annually in the U.S., does not.
The tobacco industry is well aware of the connection between movie smoking and smoking in real life. For decades, cigarette companies paid to have their brands featured in Hollywood films. Direct product placement is now banned, but it’s still true that no one but the tobacco industry benefits from a favorable cinematic treatment of cigarettes.
Every year adolescents start smoking because they see their favorite actors smoking. Many of them become addicted for a lifetime and the tobacco companies enjoy the profits. Leading health organizations have endorsed ways to address this problem, including requiring any movie with smoking to automatically receive an R rating. This would decrease the number of teens who see smoking in movies during a time in their lives when they are likely to try it.
Youth smoking rates are declining because we have taken steps to decrease tobacco’s visibility in our communities. Smoke-free movies would be a great next step.