Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 3 - November 2010
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Killing isn’t just in R-rated movies anymore

Study finds films with smoking scenes lead youth to smoke

By Joe Strizzi

Parents are usually happy to know that their children might be out with friends, at the movies, where they may feel that their offspring are safe from all the dangers of the outside world, but a new study claims that watching movies where smoking is prevalent may prove lethal in the long run.

Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC), a health advocacy group of physicians whose goal is to bring to light tobacco-caused illnesses through education and reduction, argue that films today are a primary cause for adolescents to start smoking and progress to regular, addicted smoking.

These claims are based on an August study on the effect of children watching smoking in movies conducted by Jonathan Polansky, a consultant to tobacco prevention agencies and policy research projects in the US, Canada, the UK and other nations, on behalf of PSC.

The report is titled Tobacco Vector: How American movies, Canadian film subsidies and provincial rating practices will kill 43,000 Canadian teens alive today — and what Canadian governments can do about it. It pooled and examined the results of four longitudinal US studies, as well as research conducted by the World Health Organization, the US Institute of Medicine and the US National Cancer Institute among others that extrapolated from four continents and applied those findings to the Canadian population.

“Four carefully done studies in the US concluded the more young people are exposed to movies with smoking in them, the more likely they will take up smoking,” said Neil Collishaw, research director of PSC.

Polansky estimates that 130,000 Canadian youths start smoking every year as a result of exposure to smoking in movies — 43,000 of them will die prematurely from tobacco-related illnesses.

He also found that federal and provincial subsidies to Hollywood studios undermine public health efforts to reduce smoking.

“Canadian provincial and federal governments are unintentionally contributing to the problem,” said Polansky. “First, the provincial rating systems allow many of the US studio films with the most smoking, R-rated in the US, to be dumped into the Canadian youth market, spiking youth tobacco exposure. Second, scores of US studio films with smoking, accessible to young people, are actually being paid for by Canada’s taxpayers through generous production tax credits.”

The study estimated that, over the past five years, Canada’s provincial and federal governments granted $250 billion to fund Hollywood productions intended for young audiences that featured smoking, and in the end, every dollar in film subsidies may cost Canada $1.70 in societal losses.

Our concerns are not with film artists, small producers or documentary film makers,” said Collishaw.  “The problem is with big Hollywood studios wittingly or unwittingly promoting smoking around the world and with Canadian tax dollars being used to harm the health of young people worldwide.”

The report also makes suggestions as to what steps governments should take. This includes strengthening the national home video rating scheme; changing the rating system to at least 18a for films with tobacco imagery (with exceptions for when actual people who actually smoked are represented or for the unambiguous depictions of the dire health consequences of tobacco use); making youth-rated films with tobacco imagery ineligible for future public subsidies; requiring credited producers to attest each film is free of tobacco payoffs; requiring strong anti-tobacco spots in all film exhibition channels (theatre, home and mobile) at distributors’ and exhibitors’ expense and end tobacco brand display.

Some good news

According to a report released in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publication in August, tobacco use on the big screen peaked in 2005, but has been on the decline ever since.

“Hollywood is perfectly capable of making movies without as much smoking and people still come to see them”, said Stanton Glantz, the study’s main author and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.

Glantz and the CDC have been pressuring movie studios to cut out smoking scenes in movies that target children and teenagers.

“There’s a declining trend, which is good to see,” said Ursula Bauer of the CDC, “but we haven’t made nearly enough progress.”

Spotlight on Quebec

On March 16, the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health awarded the first ever Oxygen and Ashtray awards to four of last year’s movies in order to combat the promotion of tobacco on the big screen. The goal of these nominations was to inform film producers and actors about the social consequences of their choices with regard to smoking in movies and its effect on youth. The winners in each category were chosen by a jury following a vote by the public.

Along with awards to Quebec-based films, an international category contained nominations for some of the biggest box office hits of 2009. The musical Nine, by Rob Marshall, was given the dubious honour of winning an Ashtray award for the excessive amount of smoking scenes throughout the film, while the Temptation instalment of the Twilight saga, directed by Chris Weitz, was awarded an Oxygen prize for its ‘clean screen.’

Glantz, who was a guest speaker at the awards ceremony via video-conference, applauded the efforts by the Council. He said that multiple studies have shown that rich and attractive film characters who smoked on screen were three times more common than in real life, and that influence on youth was irrefutable, adding that over half of all adolescents who took up smoking (according to one of his studies), where neither parent was a smoker themselves, did so because of exposure to it in movies.


Smoking references not just a problem on the big screen


A California study released in September found that almost half of popular song lyrics and music videos contain smoking references. The study, commissioned by the city of Berkeley and conducted by its Tobacco Prevention Program, found that 51.3% of the most-played songs on local radio stations that are most popular among adolescents aged 12-24 feature images of smoking in its music videos. The study’s authors also found that 30% of music videos show scenes involving smoking, even though these particular songs make no reference to tobacco use.


Research has determined that viewing even a modest level of music videos may result in substantial exposure of glamourized depictions of tobacco and alcohol use,” wrote the city’s public health department in a press release. “A number of contemporary artists mention and glamourize tobacco use, including cigars, blunts and cigarettes in their song lyrics and videos,” and there are concerns about the “serious health impacts” that could be caused by such imagery.


High school students in the Berkeley Unified School District were charged with the task of evaluating the songs.