Watching a movie star light up a cigarette on the silver screen may seem harmless at first, but a new study has found that it may make a teenager pick up the habit for the rest of his or her life.
According to an American study published Monday in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, watching actors light up on screen was found to strongly influence adolescents in picking up smoking as a daily habit.
The study's main author, Dr. James Sargent of Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H., said that while other studies have shown that exposure to movie smoking increases teens' risk of starting to smoke, this is the first time anyone has linked movie smoking to becoming established smokers.
"In terms of trying smoking, movies are responsible from anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent of smoking initiation, so it's a big piece of the puzzle," said Sargent.
Sargent and his team came to their conclusion after surveying more than 6,500 adolescents aged from 10 to 14 about their smoking and movie-watching habits in 2003, with several follow-up interviews conducted until 2005. Each smoking occurrence in the movie the teens said they watched was measured and tabulated over the years to determine if there was an overall trend.
The researchers found that while 33 teens had smoked more than 100 cigarettes at the beginning of the study by the two-year follow-up survey, 125 of the participants had become established smokers. The connection between movie smoking and established teenage smokers remained significant after the researchers considered other factors related to teen smoking, including age, smoking by a parent or friend and sensation-seeking qualities.
"We were conclusively able to show how much smoking they saw in the movies in the beginning would predict in the future whether or not they would become an established smoker," said Sargent.
Along with an earlier study done by Dartmouth, researchers in 2005 found that 38 out of 100 adolescents who tried smoking did so because of exposure to smoking in movies. Sargent says to lessen the influence movie smoking may have on teens, film rating boards should adopt new practices to display how many smoking occurrences are in a movie.
"Film boards are perfectly capable of raising the concern about smoking in movies by rating movies," said Sargent. "Knowing that smoking in movies is a major public-health concern, it just seems logical that you'd want to incorporate that into your movie rating."
The move to offer stricter ratings on movies that contain smoking scenes has been picking up steam. SceneSmoking.org, a U.S. lobbying organization has asked the Motion Picture Association of America to place a Restricted rating on films that include smoking.
Calls to the Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia film-review boards were not returned.
However, Canadians may still be all right with actors lighting up on screen, even if it may influence teenage smoking. A recent Angus-Reid survey released last week polled more than 1,000 adult Canadians and found that 52 per cent would be against a smoking ban in movies and TV shows.