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Smoke Screen: Tobacco in the Movies

In Canada, 38% of current and former smokers began smoking before their 15th birthday.1 Behaviours and attitudes of friends and family are considered major influences on young peoples’ decisions to start smoking. However, health studies are pointing to another contributing factor – movies. Research suggests that there is a strong link between viewing smoking in films and smoking initiation among adolescents.2

In 2003, the Dartmouth Medical School conducted a study in which they recruited over 2600 young people, ages 10-14, who had never smoked. The Dartmouth researchers followed the young people for 13-26 months, during which time 10% of the young people started to smoke. They found that the young people with the most exposure to smoking in films were almost three times as likely to have started smoking as those in the group with the lowest exposure.3 In 2005, Dartmouth conducted a larger study, involving over 6500 subjects aged 10-14 with almost identical results.4

In the December 2006 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, a study “The Extent to Which Tobacco Marketing and Tobacco Use in Films Contribute to Children’s Use of Tobacco,” found that depictions of smoking in movies are more psychologically powerful than cigarette advertisements and have a greater impact on children’s attitudes and behaviours regarding smoking. The research looked at 51 studies and found that media exposure to tobacco use increases the odds of youth taking up smoking almost threefold.5

The University of California, San Fransico’s (UCSF) Centre for Tobacco Control Research and Education, estimates that every year 390,000 teens start smoking because of its depiction in films – translating to $4.1 billion in lifetime sales revenue for the tobacco industry.6

Product Placement

Product placement, the practise of using real commercial products in media, has been used by marketers and companies since the 1980s. During the eighties tobacco companies paid movie producers and actors hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote their brand of cigarettes. (Examples of product placement in movies can be found at

In 1989, the U.S. congress started to investigate the tobacco industry’s involvement in the movie industry. High profile tobacco product placements in movies such as the James Bond film Licence to Kill (1989) led to a voluntary ban within the tobacco industry on this practice. Tobacco product placement has since been considered illegal in the U.S.7 Similarly, in Canada tobacco companies cannot advertise or pay for exposure on television or in movies.8Despite the self regulatory ban, and the fact that tobacco product placement is prohibited; the frequency of smoking in movies has increased.9 In 2002, 74% of all American films featured smoking, including three-quarters of youth-rated movies, regardless of the tobacco industry’s assertion that they did not request or grant permission for the appearance of any cigarette product.10

Smoking in PG-13 Films

Why target youth?

The tobacco industry is losing its customers. Smoking kills over 45,000 Canadians each year, and thousands of other smokers are quitting. Tobacco companies need to recruit more smokers to take the place of those who have died or quit. Most smokers choose their favourite brand of cigarettes and become addicted to nicotine during their teens.

(Source: The Lung Association,

Health advocates argue that because the youth market is so crucial to tobacco sales, and teenagers make up over a quarter of the movie-going population, it is advantageous for tobacco companies to have a presence in the movies.11

In 2003 the American Lung Association released a study that reviewed 145 movies and found that PG-13 movies contain more tobacco use than R-rated films intended for adults.11 In a similar study the following year found that eighty percent of the popular PG-13 movies examined depicted tobacco use.13

The American Medical Association (AMA) Alliance released a list of movies made in 2006 that were the worst offenders for glamorizing smoking. Of the seven movies listed, five were PG-13 films. The films that made the list were The Ant Bully (PG), Material Girls (PG), Talladega Nights(PG-13), Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (PG-13), Stay Alive (PG-13), Superman Returns (PG-13), andYou, Me and Dupree (PG-13).14

For some young people, they may be exposed to more smoking in movies than they encounter in real life. On average, adolescents watch three movies a week. Films generally contain five smoking episodes per film, equaling to fifteen exposures a week.15

Quick Facts…

  • Since 1998, smoking in PG-13 movies has increased 50 per cent.16
  • Non-smoking teens who watch their favourite stars frequently smoke on screen are 16 times more likely to have positive attitudes toward smoking in the future.17
  • Current movie heroes are four times more likely to smoke than are people in real life.18
  • UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education estimates that movies with smoking generate $894 million per year in tobacco profits.19

For Discussion

  • Do you think movies that depict smoking, and the stars who smoke, influence the way people think and feel about tobacco?
  • What has a more sway, tobacco use by a film character on-screen or tobacco use by an actor off-screen? For example Johnny Depp’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl(2003), although a pirate, doesn’t smoke and, in fact, in one scene throws tobacco overboard. However, in real life there are many photos of Johnny Depp smoking.
  • Should actors have a right to deny their characters the ability to smoke? Discuss the following comment by actor Eliza Dushka “I had to smoke for a role when I was 15 and it kinda stuck. I made all these plans to quit this year, but then I got a role in a DeNiro movie, and I smoke in that…so I don’t know.”19
  • Discuss the following quote from Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and anti-tobacco activist. “If Hollywood just got the smoking out of youth-related films, it would have a huge effect, and it would cost nothing. It would be the most cost-effective health intervention ever done.”20
    • Do you agree with his statement? If so, in what ways can Hollywood get smoking out of films?
    • Many anti-smoking organizations are requesting that tobacco use in a film should affect its rating. Do you think films that depict tobacco use should get an automatic ‘R’ rating? Can you think of alternatives to an ‘R’ rating? (ie. Warning labels)
  • Define (or research) what ‘social responsibility’ means to you. Do you think movies are or need to be socially responsible? If so, in what ways can filmmakers be accountable for their depictions? What role does social responsibility play in depictions of tobacco use in movies?


1. Healthy Lung Chart (modelling the Scene Smoking)

Visit the Web site The Web site, developed by the “Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!” project of the American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, is designed to raise awareness about the impact of tobacco use in movies. The site provides a ratings chart for current films – pink lungs for films without tobacco to black lungs for films that depict significant tobacco use.

Students can create their own healthy lung chart by tracking and accessing, over the course of two weeks, the tobacco use in films and television shows they view.

2. Smoking Survey

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in July of 2006 that the percentage of high school students that smoked cigarettes increased to 23 per cent in 2005 from 21.9 per cent in 2003. The increase is the first since a steady 40 per cent decline in high school smoking rates between 1997, when 36.4 per cent of high school students smoked, and 2003.22

Have students survey their peers on their tobacco use. For the students who smoke, ask them what factors were involved in choosing to smoke.

3. Public Awareness Campaign

Tobacco is the second major cause of death in the world23 and the single most important cause of preventable illness and premature death in Canada.24 Health advocates argue that films normalize smoking and too few films depict the negative or long-term effects of smoking.25

As a group, have students brainstorm ways to create an awareness campaign on the effects of smoking. Possible ideas may include: posters; public service announcements, as either an audio piece over the intercom or a video piece to share with younger grades; the creation of an anti-smoking Web site; a blog that reviews films on tobacco depictions; or other student ideas.

Quote from the film Thank-you for Smoking

Jeff Megall: They have a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make.

Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space?

Jeff Megall: It’s the final frontier, Nick.

Nick Naylor: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all oxygen environment?

Jeff Megall: Probably. But it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. ‘Thank God we invented the… you know, whatever device.’

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