Long after views on smoking evolved from glamorous to gross, Hollywood hasn't gotten the message. Nearly half of the movies released last year depicted tobacco use.
There is an established link between on-screen smoking and teenagers' decision to start smoking. About 44 percent of teen smokers were primarily influenced by movie characters' tobacco use, according to research from Dartmouth University.
"Smoking in the movies has a bigger effect than conventional advertising," said Stanton Glantz of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California in San Francisco. "The more kids see, the more likely they are to smoke."
After a five-year decline in on-screen tobacco use, there were 7 percent more smoking incidents per movie in 2011, according to a study from Glantz published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Movies rated G, PG or PG-13 saw an even larger increase in smoking, with 34 percent more incidents over the year before. Smoking was depicted in about one in five top-grossing G- or PG-rated movies released in 2011, one-half of PG-13 movies and two-thirds of R-rated movies.
Some of the worst offenders aimed at kids were the PG-rated "Rango" and "Hugo" and PG-13 movies "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" and "X-Men: First Class," according to the study.
"There's just no excuse for having a cartoon like Rango be one of the smokiest movies made that year," Glantz said. "Thousands and thousands of kids are going to smoke who otherwise weren't going to."
The cartoon features a chameleon, Rango, in a western theme with other animals. When the movie was released, Paramount Pictures issued a statement in response to criticism.
"The images of smoking in the film, which primarily involves the animals, are portrayed by supporting characters and are not intended to be celebrated or emulated," reads the statement. "Rango is never depicted as smoking."
Any movie that depicts smoking should automatically qualify for an "R" rating, recommends a consortium of state attorneys general including Chris Koster in Missouri and Lisa Madigan in Illinois.
Their hope is the policy would encourage movie executives to eliminate smoking rather than risk a smaller audience with an R rating. Exceptions could be made for movies that show the dangers of smoking or include historical figures known to have smoked.
The attorneys general sent letters in May to studio heads calling for several other changes such as airing anti-smoking messages before any movie that depicts smoking and removing any shots of brand name tobacco products.
Three movie studios -- Disney, Time-Warner and Universal -- have adopted policies in the last decade to discourage on-screen smoking. By 2010, the studios had close to zero smoking incidents in children's films.
But in 2011, the trend reversed when all major studios released fewer smoke-free movies.
One argument studio executives have made for smoking is that it makes a movie more realistic.
"Movies are movies, they're not documentaries," Glantz said. "People go to the bathroom several times a day, you don't see that in the movies."
In the general population, smoking is more common in less-educated, low-income and rural communities. Smokers have higher rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. In movies, smokers tend to be otherwise positive role models.
"The portrayal you see in the movies is much more reflective of cigarette marketing messages than reality," Glantz said.
Historically, tobacco companies had marketing deals with movie studios and certain stars to promote their products. As cigarettes have become less socially acceptable, the promotional deals have ended but the smoking hasn't.
Smoking in non-historical films is unnecessary, said Kevin Pysz, a health teacher at Collinsville Middle School. "It doesn't convey the mood and the escapism that movies try to capture," he said.
In a recent class, Pysz asked students if they remembered characters smoking in the movie Rango, and they did. Pysz believes that smoking in movies normalizes the behavior.
"Perhaps the wide variety of messages have provided a learned behavior of acceptance," he said. "It's easier to justify what we do even though we know it's wrong."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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