Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Laws prohibit paid tobacco-product placement in movies and tobacco advertising to children. Nonetheless, Hollywood actors are lighting up so frequently on screen that researchers say it is inducing teens–and quite possibly body-conscious female teens in particular–to follow their example.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has found an increase in high-school-age smoking from 1990 through 1996. Meanwhile, the winter 2001 issue of Tobacco Control, a London-based quarterly medical journal, published data suggesting that movie smoking–despite a perceived cultural bias against the habit–is actually on the rise. The study out of the University of California at San Francisco by Karen Kacirk, an analyst, and Dr. Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine, showed 10.9 instances of tobacco use per hour in films released in 2000, up from a comparable measurement of 7.3 in 1960.

In connecting the two trends, researchers at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire recently found teen viewing of movie smoking could as much as triple their risk of starting to smoke.

"There’s a link between movie smoking and what kids do," Dr. Michael Beach, one of the Dartmouth researchers, told Women’s eNews, "and there’s a lot of smoking in movies, it’s extremely prevalent."

"What’s surprising to some people is that movies can have that much impact," continued Beach. "But, for example, Tom Cruise wore Ray-Ban sunglasses in a movie and suddenly everyone had them. Julia Roberts, Sean Penn are seen smoking in movies."

Smoking in Movies Strongest Influence for Teens to Begin

According to the study by Beach and others–published in the June 10 issue of the medical journal The Lancet–smoking in movies is the strongest start-smoking influence on teens.

Beach said researchers also found close to 60 percent of the smoking that occurs on screen is in films with the youth-ratings of G, PG and PG-13. Investigators, according to Beach, didn’t count background smoking, only smoking by significant film characters. They followed 2,600 children, aged 10 to 14 from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds who had never smoked, for one to two years and tracked which of 50 randomly-selected, top-selling movies they watched. Smoking by each film’s central characters was also measured.

The researchers, said Beach, "are now investigating a potentially increased risk of girls’ smoking over boys, because we found interesting data in this study."

Jean Kilbourne, author of the book "Can’t Buy My Love–How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel," doesn’t need any further data to persuade her that smoking by movie stars causes image-conscious girls to start smoking. She says she herself started to smoke at age 13 to pattern herself after Lauren Bacall and she believes that girls are particularly vulnerable to pro-smoking media messages that tie smoking to thinness.

"What girl isn’t made to feel insecure about her body?" she asked, adding that celebrities make smoking seem "more grown up, more glamorous, more independent; that appeals to all teens, but girls get hit hard with the message that it will keep them slim. There are many suggestive words used in cigarette ads like ‘slim’ and ‘light.’"

Girls are more likely than boys to smoke so-called ‘light’ cigarettes, according to the report "Smoking and Youth: An Analysis of the 2000 National Youth Tobacco Survey" published in August 2001 by the anti-smoking American Legacy Foundation in Washington, D.C. The report said 34 percent of middle-school girls who smoked and 47 percent of high-school girls who smoked used the brands advertised as "light" (compared with 25 percent of male middle-school smokers and 36 percent of male high-school smokers).

Girls Concerned with Body Image More Likely to Smoke

Kilbourne’s point about girls’ use of smoking as a route to glamour and weight-control is supported by the American Lung Association Web site, which notes that "teen-age girls often start to smoke to avoid weight gain."

In a study published in April in Tobacco Control, Michael Siegel, a professor of public health at Boston University, found a more subtle process. According to his findings, it wasn’t a girl’s actual weight that led her to start smoking, it was a girl’s belief that the way she looked–her body image–was the most important key to social success.

This importance given to body image, above other factors, predicted that the girl would start smoking even if she was actually underweight or of average weight. Average-weight girls who didn’t believe their body image was more important than their behavior or personality, for example, would be much less inclined to smoke. In other words, Siegel and co-author Kaori Honjo found that teen girls start smoking most often when they believe their appearance is of paramount importance and that smoking will help them control their weight.

"We’re really talking about identity," said Siegel, in an interview. "Having a perception that it’s very important to be thin means that a girl is thinking that her body image is what gives her value."

"It’s clear we need to have gender-specific interventions to prevent smoking," concluded Siegel, which he said should include initiatives to help girls understand how advertising works. "If they get a handle on that, they’re less likely to be manipulated."

Dr. Corinne Husten, chief of Epidemiology Branch Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, expressed concern about movie smoking, citing a 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Drug Control Policy showing tobacco use in 89 percent of rented movies, whether action, drama or comedy. Especially surprising, she said, was that tobacco was used in 79 percent of the movies rated G or PG and 82 percent of those rated PG-13. "This creates the impression that smoking is more common, normal and appealing," said Husten.

The Federal Trade Commission reports tobacco companies spend an average $13 million a day on advertising-and-marketing campaigns. Television tobacco ads have been illegal since 1970, but movies shown on television may show smoking. Bill Lieblich, an attorney with the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington, D.C., the professional organization for U.S. attorneys general, said that tobacco companies cannot legally offer money or other consideration to place their products in movies, according to a 1998 legal settlement reached by 46 states with the major tobacco companies. (The remaining states reached separate settlements).

However, that doesn’t satisfy such people as Dr. Glantz, co-author of the University of California San Francisco study about the rise of smoking in year-2000 movies and a former smoker. Glantz created the educational and advocacy Web site "Smoke Free Movies." He says that the movie industry has responded to the group’s ads and student letter-writing campaigns opposing movie smoking with "absolute lock-down silence."

"Many women have told me that they started smoking because of Olivia Newton-John in ‘Grease’," said Glantz, whose site tracks movies in which such teen idols as Gwyneth Paltrow, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Drew Barrymore are shown smoking. Glantz criticized last year’s Oscar-winner "Chicago" for its strong pro-smoking message to teen girls.

"You have very high-profile actresses in a tremendously successful movie, very sexy people," said Glantz of the film’s stars Renee Zellweger, Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones. "There’s a lot of girls who are smoking now because of that movie and girls will start smoking for years because of that movie."

Suzanne Batchelor has written on health and medicine for Medscape, CBS Healthwatch and the Texas Medical Association’s "Healthline Texas," and for the national science series "Earth and Sky."

For more information:

Smoke Free Movies:

The National Association of Attorneys General
NAAG Projects: Tobacco: