Mar. 9, 1998 The incidence of smoking in top-grossing movies has increased during the 1990s, and dramatically exceeds real smoking rates, according to a new study led by a prominent tobacco researcher from the University of California San Francisco.
After declining over three decades, smoking in movies has returned to levels comparable to those observed in the 1960s before the issuance of the first Surgeon General's report on smoking and health in 1964, according to Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, a professor of medicine at UCSF with the Institute for Health Policy Studies and the Division of Cardiology.
The report by Glantz and Theresa F. Stockwell, who conducted the research as part of a master's degree project, appears in the new issue of Tobacco Control, a scientific journal published by the British Medical Association.
The presentation of smoking in films remains pro-tobacco, according to Stockwell and Glantz, with only 14 percent of tobacco screen-time presenting adverse social or health effects of tobacco use.
The researchers found that in movies from the 1960s, tobacco was used about once for every five minutes of film time. In films from the 1970s and 1980s, tobacco was used about once every 10 to 15 minutes, but in movies from the 1990s, tobacco was used an average of every three to five minutes, according to the researchers.
"The use of tobacco in films is increasing and is reinforcing misleading images that present smoking as a widespread and socially desirable activity," according to Glantz and Stockwell. "These portrayals may encourage teenagers--the major movie audience--to smoke.
"Films continue to present the smoker as one who is typically white, male, middle class, successful and attractive, a movie hero who takes smoking for granted," the researchers report. "As in tobacco advertising, tobacco use in the movies is associated with youthful vigor, good health, good looks, and personal and professional acceptance.
"Portrayals of tobacco use, whether in a positive or negative context, lead to changes in attitudes that predispose children to smoking. In an era in which the tobacco industry is finding traditional advertising media increasingly restricted, the appearance of tobacco use in motion pictures is an important mechanism to promote and reinforce tobacco use, particularly among young people," they report.
To conduct the study, Glantz and Stockwell randomly selected for analysis five films from among the 20 leading money-makers for each year from 1990 to 1996. In the movies sampled, 57 percent of leading characters smoked, compared to just 14 percent of similar people in the general population. In the films from 1991 through 1996, 80 percent of the male leads smoked.
In an earlier study Glantz analyzed two films from among the 20 most popular films every year for the years 1960 through 1990. After comparing the two studies the researchers concluded that the socioeconomic status of smokers in movies has increased dramatically during the 1990s compared to earlier decades, despite the fact that smoking in real life is more common among lower social classes.
Among characters who smoked, 55 percent were from a lower socioeconomic class in the randomly selected movies from the 1960s, compared to 54 percent in the 1970s, 58 percent in the 1980s, and just 21 percent in the 1990s. The percentage of movie smokers who were middle class was 19 percent in 1960s movies, 25 percent in 1970s movies, 25 percent in 1980s movies, but jumped to 49 percent in 1990s movies. The percentage of upper class smokers in the sampled movies was 26 percent in the 1960s, 21 percent in the 1970s, 17 percent in the 1980s, and rose to 30 percent in the 1990s.
The reason for the increasing incidence of smoking in films is not clear, Glantz says.
During the 1980s, the tobacco industry was paying substantial fees for product placement, Glantz and Stockwell point out, but the Tobacco Institute claims that payment for specific brand placement in films has ended. Glantz and Stockwell found that brand identification decreased during the 1990s.
Glantz and Stockwell argue that strong anti-tobacco advertisements should be aired by movie theaters prior to the screening of any film that portrays smoking, and that movie producers should require everyone connected to the making of a film to certify that they are not receiving money or gifts for the use of tobacco in films.
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