Dartmouth researchers link movies to teen smoking

December 13, 2001

HANOVER, N.H. - Smoking in movies has been linked to adolescents trying their first cigarette, according to a new study by a team from Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School. Published in the Dec. 15, 2001, issue of the British Medical Journal, the report reveals that as adolescents see more smoking in movies, it's more likely to entice them to try smoking.

James D. Sargent, M.D., a pediatrician with the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchock Medical Center and an associate professor at Dartmouth Medical School, led the investigation to understand the smoking impact of movies on adolescents. The group, which included colleagues from both Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School, surveyed about 5,000 middle school students from Vermont and New Hampshire ages nine to 15. Nearly 32 percent of the adolescents who had seen the movies with the most smoking had tried cigarettes, compared to only five percent of those who saw movies with the least smoking.

Even after considering all other factors known to influence this behavior, such as peer smoking, adolescents with the highest exposure to movie smoking were more than two and a half times as likely to take up smoking compared to those with minimal exposure. The research was funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute.

"This is the first population-based survey to measure teen exposure to smoking in movies. For better or worse, adolescents watch a lot of movies -- so many that they might see more smoking in films than in the real world," said Sargent. "These results might seem obvious to some, but until now we only had anecdotal information about how movies influence adolescent behavior. With this survey, we've shown that what teens see in the movies is statistically linked with what they do."

Todd Heatherton, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth and an author on the study, added, "Our findings were surprisingly strong, and this may be due to the way Hollywood portrays smoking. The logical next step is to figure out how adolescents process the information they see in movies, and how this might influence smoking behavior."

The research team counted cigarette smoking activity in 601 popular films released in the U.S. from 1988 to 1999, and they found an average of five occurrences of tobacco use per movie. Their student subjects were asked to identify films they had seen from a list of 50 randomly selected titles. Based on the movies they had seen and the amount of smoking in each movie, the adolescents were split into four levels of exposure to movie smoking. Researchers then compared their exposure to their personal smoking history, taking into account other factors associated with teen smoking, such as having a friend who smokes. The full list of movies can be found at www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/dec01/listofmovies.shtml.

In January 2001, this research team reported that actor endorsement of cigarette brands in movies was increasing. In March 2001, the team released findings that adolescents whose favorite movie stars smoke on-screen are more likely to be smokers themselves. In December 2001, the researchers reported that children are less likely to smoke if their parents disapprove.

Sargent and his colleagues will continue their adolescent smoking studies with an additional $3.6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute. The award will fund research to further clarify the connection between exposure to movies and teenage smoking and understand the parent's role in restricting this exposure.

The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth

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