Study Finds Smoking in Movies Tied to Adolescent Tobacco Use

According to a new study, when it comes to smoking, adolescents may be emulating the movie stars they see on the big screen. Writing in the December 15 issue of the British Medical Journal, researchers at Dartmouth College report that they have found a link between tobacco use in movies and smoking amongst young people.

James D. Sargent and colleagues questioned 4,919 New England middle school students between the ages of nine and 15 about their smoking habits and movies they had seen. “For better or worse, adolescents watch a lot of movies,” Sargent explains. “So many that they might see more smoking in films than in the real world.”

The researchers counted cigarette smoking activity in 601 popular films released in the United States between 1988 and 1999. The questionnaires asked students to identify movies they watched from a list of 50 randomly selected titles, ranging from The Addams Family to The X-Files. The team then compared the students’ exposure to smoking in films to their personal smoking history. Students with the highest exposure to movie smoking, the study found, were more than two and a half times as likely to take up smoking compared to those with the least exposure when other influential factors such as peer smoking, smoking by parents, school performance and rebelliousness were considered. “With this survey, we’ve shown that what teens see in the movies is statistically linked with what they do,” Sargent notes.

The authors caution, however, that their findings are limited by the study design, which cannot determine the temporal sequence of events—that is, whether seeing tobacco in films precedes smoking. “The results,” they conclude, “are the first step towards determining causation.”

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