Tobacco Use in Hit Movies Jumps 80% in One Year, Setting Off Health Advocates

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A close-up of cigarettes in Bristol, England Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Health advocates are seizing upon a new study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, detailing tobacco use in top-grossing U.S. movies, to argue for revisions to the film rating system. According to the report, there was an 80 percent increase in incidents of tobacco use in those films from 2015 to 2016.

Depictions of smoking in Hollywood has long been a point of contention between the film industry and public health researchers, the latter arguing that long-standing tobacco use in movies has encouraged more smoking from audiences, especially teenagers. But cigarettes, with their “coolness” factor and trail of smoke that has long been favored by lighting technicians, are hard for filmmakers to remove completely from their work.

“There’s so many iconic images of cool associated with smoking that it’s a hard habit for actors and filmmakers to break,” film historian Craig Detweiler tells KCRA. “The tension arises because filmmakers are often going for a particular look or feel. Smoke is very photogenic, and actors are always looking for something to do with their hands, a bit of business.”

The CDC report, taken from a study done by the nonprofit Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, crunched the numbers of cigarettes, cigars, pipes, hookahs, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes depicted in the top 10 highest-grossing movies at the U.S. box office per week per year, from 2010 to 2016.

Previous reports have shown a decline in tobacco use in movies from 2005 to 2010, likely due to increased prevention efforts and television ad campaigns against the practice. But from 2010 to 2016, the number of depictions steadily rose until it reached its peak in 2016, with 3,145 depictions of tobacco featured in 143 movies. The total increase was around 72 percent, with an 80 percent increase from 2015 to 2016.

Stanton Glantz, one of the study's authors and a professor at UC San Francisco, argues that more measures must be taken to prevent children from being exposed to so many candid depictions of smoking.

"The MPAA needs to modernize the rating system to reflect the conclusive science that putting smoking on a screen increases the chances of youth smoking and then dying prematurely as a result," he said.

Because the study was only limited to top-grossing movies (which account for 96 percent of ticket sales), there were many films left out of the CDC report. Additionally, says Dan Romer, a director of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, there’s no way of knowing the audience demographics of those watching the films; the audiences could be filled with way more adults than adolescents.

The study of onscreen tobacco use’s effects on children and teenagers drew significant attention in 1992, when journalist Aljean Harmetz published an analysis in the New York Times on the subject. She noted that the 1942 movie Now, Voyager, the Bette Davis film that features a romantic cigarette sharing in its ending, sparked a phenomenon of teenagers sharing cigarettes as a romantic gesture that year.

Less anecdotally, a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that for every 500 smoking scenes a teenager sees in PG-13 movies, the likelihood of the teenager to take up smoking increases by 49 percent.

In 2007, the Motion Picture Associate of America (MPAA) agreed to include smoking as a factor in its film ratings. However, despite efforts from multiple health agencies, the MPAA has not added tobacco use to its R-rating list. The recent CDC report noted that, in 2016’s youth-friendly movies—G, PG, and PG-13—only 26 percent featured tobacco use, versus 67 percent in R-rated films.

Some still see the decline of tobacco depiction in films as inevitable; indeed, onscreen tobacco use decreased from 2016 to 2017.

“The amount of smoking seen in the movies was remarkably consistent with the overall prevalence rates of smoking in the country,” said Romer. “Nowadays, there aren’t as many people smoking anymore, so there’s also less of that in the movies.”