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Go Ask Mom

Study: Tobacco use scenes spike in PG-13 movies

Posted July 11
Updated July 12

Still, the CDC reports nearly 4 million middle and high school students used some form of tobacco in 2016.

A casual puff. A cigarette, hanging from the fingers. On the big screen, it might seem like a fleeting scene in a blockbuster movie. But, for the kids watching, those scenes can lead to tobacco use and add up to a life-long impact, experts have said for years.

And, after a steady decline in tobacco use in PG-13 movies, a new study says that, in the past six years, it's been on the rise.

The report, published this month, comes from the University of California, San Francisco and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here are the findings:

From 2005 to 2010, there was a decline in the number of scenes that included tobacco use in youth-rated movies, which are rated G, PG or PG-13. If that decline had continued after 2010, all youth-rated films would have been smoke-free by 2015.

Today, there are fewer youth-rated movies that include tobacco use. But, the average number of tobacco incidents per movie climbed to historically high levels in 2014 - and reached almost the same level in 2016.

For PG-13 movies, the total number of scenes with tobacco use grew by 43 percent between 2010 and 2016. In R-rated movies, the number of incidents increased 90 percent during the same time period.

"Tobacco use depictions are now uncommon in G and PG films; however, the 43 percent increase in the total number of tobacco-use incidents in PG-13 movies, from 564 in 2010 to 809 in 2016, is of particular public health concern because of the established causal relationship between youths’ exposure to smoking in movies and smoking initiation," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Indeed, the Surgeon General's 2012 report on the topic concluded that seeing movie characters smoke or use other tobacco products can lead young people to start smoking. Another study found that giving an R rating to movies with smoking could save lives - reducing the number of teen smokers by nearly 18 percent and saving as many as one million of their lives.

The report recommends that movie studios give an R rating to movies with smoking. It also recommends that movie studios certify that producers and distributors have received no money for depicting tobacco use and that they end all depictions of actual tobacco brands.

The report also urges state and local health departments to work with the state agencies that dole out movie subsidies to ensure funding doesn't go to films that show tobacco use.

Until then - and even if those recommended safeguards are ever put in place, parents, who don't want to see their kids puffing away, can take matters into their own hands.

"Smoking is glamorized in movies and television shows, but parents are the most important influences in their children's lives," says the American Lung Association in an article about talking to your kids about tobacco use.

The lung association recommends that parents:

  • Tell your children honestly and directly that you don't want them to smoke cigarettes. Give them clear, consistent messages about the risks of smoking.
  • Start talking to your kids about smoking when they are 5 or 6 years old and continue through their high school years. Many kids start smoking at age 11 and some are addicted by age 14. Explain the health dangers of smoking, as well as the unpleasant physical aspects (such as bad breath, discolored teeth and nails).
  • Set a good example for your kids by not smoking. Parents who smoke are more likely to have children who smoke.
  • If you're a parent who smokes, the best thing you can do is to quit.

The lung association has resources for those ready to quit.

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