The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: February 6, 2004
Movie smoking hooks teens, experts say
By SUZANNE BATCHELOR
Smoking in movies is responsible for addicting 1,080 U.S. adolescents to tobacco every day, 340 of whom will die prematurely as a result. -- Editorial, The Lancet British medical journal, June 10, 2003
Watching popular movies is the No. 1 factor leading nonsmoking teens to light up, say researchers from New Hampshires Dartmouth Medical School in a landmark 2003 study published in The Lancet. They found film character smoking more persuasive than traditional advertising, peer pressure or parents.
Smoking in movies is having a major effect on health, concluded The Lancet editorial accompanying their findings.
Given that the tobacco companies have agreed in settlements to cease marketing to the young, the question remains, how is it that the film industry has begun to release movies that give special play to lead figures who smoke?
No one seems to have any easy answers, but regardless of why movie characters are smoking, the health harm is the same.
Theres a link between movie smoking and what kids do, and theres a lot of smoking in movies. Its extremely prevalent, said physician Michael Beach, who worked with Drs. Madeline Dalton, James Sargent and others on the Dartmouth study. Surprisingly, the researchers found the persuasive effect was strongest in children of nonsmoking parents.
Beach and colleagues also found that about 60 percent of the smoking in popular films was seen in the youth-rated movies (G, PG and PG-13).
Beach is typical of many tobacco control advocates and researchers who see:
To take the last point first: Among the top 10 box office movies reported for the week of Nov. 10 -- including The Matrix Revolutions, Elf, School of Rock, Mystic River, Scary Movie 3, Radio and Brother Bear -- only Brother Bear was smoking free. Characters smoke in more than two-thirds of youth-rated movies released in 2002 (movies rated G, PG and PG-13), according to a survey by Dr. Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine, and analyst Karen Kacirk.
Most smokers begin as teenagers, researchers say, and smoking may be more addictive begun in those years when the brain is still forming.
If you dont smoke by 18 or 21, Beach said, the odds of starting as an adult are extremely small. Its getting these children through adolescence thats particularly important.
Only the major characters
The Dartmouth movie study didnt count the characters lighting up in the background, only cigarettes on the lips of major film characters. Researchers followed 2,600 children who had never smoked, ages 10 to 14, for one and two years, tracking which of 50 randomly selected top-selling movies they watched. Smoking by each films central characters was measured.
Movie watching nearly tripled the risk a teen would start smoking, said Beach, who added, Whats surprising to some people is that movies can have that much impact. But is it? Tom Cruise wore Ray-Ban sunglasses in one film and suddenly everyone has them. No surprise then at what results when Julia Roberts and Sean Penn are seen smoking in movies.
Along with smoking, clearly visible tobacco brand names in movies are a major issue with anti-smoking advocates.
Health advocates point to the Marlboros smoked by Sam Rockwell in the 2003 film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Sissy Spaceks Marlboros in In the Bedroom, Russell Crowes Winstons in A Beautiful Mind, or John Travoltas Skoal in Basic, to name but a few examples.
Product placement is an accepted form of advertising in which companies pay for movie exposure of their products. But paid product placement for tobacco products has been illegal since the signing of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (see related story). No one has come forward with evidence of paid product placement of tobacco products since then.
Products might also appear as a matter of artistic expression or because they are integral to the plot of the story.
In Men in Black II, said Beach, you see the stars with a Marlboro carton. But when they open a refrigerator to get a jar of mayonnaise, the label on the mayonnaise is covered.
If producers or directors use or depict our brands, they do so without seeking or obtaining our permission, said spokesperson Jennifer Golisch of Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboros. Our policy for over a decade has been to deny requests for use of our cigarette brands, name or packaging in motion pictures or television shows for the general public, irrespective of whether that audience is adults or minors.
Catholic ethicists question Hollywoods attractive presentation of the harmful habit to adolescents.
Persuasion we usually think of as the art of convincing somebody of something theyre capable of thinking through, like persuading someone to vote for the candidate of our choice. This is different. We think its something young people cant think their way through, says ethicist Carol Bayley of Catholic Healthcare West in San Francisco. Then its not free choice and its not persuasion. Its something else.
Bayley said Catholic Healthcare West held tobacco stocks for many years, using ownership as leverage to urge tobacco companies to stop advertising to young people. We ended up divesting of the stock because they just wouldnt change, she said. But, she added, widespread public opinion against such marketing might halt it.
Five years ago, one university professor began his own campaign, Smoke Free Movies, and Web site. Many women have told me they started smoking because of Olivia Newton John in Grease, said Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and a director of its Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.
More than in the 1960s
When Glantz and analyst Karen Kacirk found there is more smoking in movies now than in the 1960s, his outrage led Glantz to create the Smoke Free Movies campaign, documenting the evidence frame by frame -- Gwyneth Paltrow lighting Kools in Great Expectations (1998), Johnny Depp smoking Lucky Strikes in The Ninth Gate (2000), stars such as Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Drew Barrymore exhaling smoke onscreen.
Glantz and Kacirk want Hollywood to rate smoking movies R.
If an actor says the F-word twice in a film, or once in a sexual context (versus a single profanity exclamation), that film receives an R rating, explained Glantz. I want tobacco treated as seriously as they treat the F-word.
Glantz criticized last years Oscar-winner Chicago for its strong influence on teen girls. In the 1920s about 5 percent of women smoked and the ones smoking were the rich ones, not the gun molls -- so the fact they were smoking at all was completely misleading. You have very high-profile actresses in a tremendously successful movie, said Glantz of Chicago stars Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who smoke in the movie, as does star Richard Gere. Theres a lot of girls who are smoking now because of that movie and girls will start smoking for years because of that movie.
Glantz said the Smoke Free Movies groups ads and letter campaigns have provoked no explanation from the movie industry. We do know smoking is there, that theres more than there used to be, yet everybody denies everything. Thats nothing new, said Glantz. Nobody is taking responsibility.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found an increase in high school age smoking from 1990 through 1996, and that group continues to smoke, said Corinne Husten, a physician and chief of epidemiology at the centers Office on Smoking and Health.
Each day, 6,000 children under 18 years of age smoke their first cigarette. Almost 2,000 of them will become regular smokers -- thats 757,000 annually, states the American Lung Association Web site.
If current tobacco use patterns persist, an estimated 6.4 million children will die prematurely from a smoking-related disease, the association estimates.
Seeing smoking as normal
Husten said movies subtly suggest, especially to the young, that smoking is normal. She mentions a 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that found tobacco use in 79 percent of movies rated G or PG and 82 percent of those rated PG-13. That study, Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music, was done by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
To some extent, tobacco companies preach that it [smoking] is a choice, but if youre addicted to something, its not really a choice, said Husten. Most of the time people try to quit theyre not successful. They find theyre unable to quit. That points to a strong need to help adolescents understand its dangerous to dabble.
Young adults think theyre in control, they can stop, said Sherry Marts, science director at the nonprofit Society for Womens Health Research in Washington. A few might be able to but the majority of us, our brains are wired in a way that makes us susceptible to this addiction.
Smokings persistence, Husten said, is aided by a key misunderstanding. People probably get addicted much faster than we used to think, she said. I think the power of addiction has been underestimated, and adolescents underestimate the likelihood that they themselves will become addicted.
Now Fr. Michael Crosby, a Capuchin priest, has joined Glantzs challenge to the movie industry. Head since 1980 of the tobacco program at Milwaukees Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Crosby and allied religious orders have begun filing shareholder resolutions with major film industry leaders: Universal (and parent General Electric), Warner Bros (and parent Time Warner), Paramount (and parent Viacom) and Disney. Two-third of Disneys youth-rated movies show tobacco use, according to a survey of 2002 movies by Glantz and Kacirk.
Glantz calls the interfaith centers resolutions a very big deal. The work Mike Crosby is doing is tremendously important.
Crosbys Midwest Capuchins and the interfaith center are joined by the Sisters of St. Francis U.S. Province (Milwaukee), Trinity Health (Detroit), Sisters of St. Dominic (Sinsinawa, Wis.) and Servants of Mary (Ladysmith, Wis.) in filing the shareholder resolutions against movie smoking.
When you dont get anywhere communicating with management, Crosby said of past outreach to the film companies, you have to go to the shareholders. Crosby said the interfaith center will publish ads to reach shareholders and generate public support in preparation for next springs film industry shareholder meetings.
How can anybody who is on the board of these companies who has teens or young kids themselves not understand this issue? he asks.
Hanson, director of Santa Clara Universitys Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said the ethical value of free choice may be trumped by tobaccos harm.
It is particularly objectionable to target young individuals because of the addictive character of cigarettes, said Hanson. If you can get them while theyre vulnerable and not thinking as clearly, you can get them for life, except for a Herculean effort to extract themselves.
A lot of Catholic thinking about issues like tobacco is based upon the concept of respect for the human being. Clearly, one is not respectful of the human body if one produces a product which used as intended produces harm to the body, said Hanson.
Suzanne Batchelor is a freelance writer on health care issues.
National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004
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