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How smoking in movies drives kids to become smokers

So it’s TIFF week, and what better time than now to talk about the influence that movies can have on our health.

More specifically, I want to focus on the effect that on-screen smoking has on young audiences.

The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit just released a report that analyzes the effect of smoking in movies on youth. And the results are compelling.

The first point is that most movies do have at least one scene which portrays a character smoking.

In fact, looking at the top-grossing movies between 2004 and 2014, they found that 56 per cent of them portrayed smoking, and 86 per cent of those were youth rated, with only 14 per cent being R-rated.

But does watching someone smoking on screen actually influence adolescents to start smoking? Well as it turns out, the answer is yes, and there are lots of studies that back this up.

For example, in a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, scientists Janet M. Distefan and colleagues asked adolescents who their favorite actors were, and those kids whose favorite actor had been portrayed smoking in at least two movies were 36 per cent more likely to try smoking.

In a 2009 study published in Addiction, JD Sargent and R Hanewinkel showed that kids aged 11-15 who had been exposed to smoking in the movies that they had watched had 2.8 times the odds of smoking one year later, compared to kids who had not been exposed.

In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control put together results from 17 different studies and found that adolescents and young adults who had watched movies with smoking scenes were about twice as likely to end up smoking , compared to those who hadn’t.

Some of these studies were cross-sectional (meaning that they collected data at one point in time) and others longitudinal (meaning that they followed peoples’ movie watching habits and smoking status over time).

However, we also have experimental studies where youths were exposed to movies with and without smoking and their behaviour monitored after watching the movie.

Again, youths who had watched movies with smoking scenes were more likely to consider smoking to be “socially acceptable” and more likely to smoke a cigarette.

Ultimately, this effect leads a lot of young people to start smoking.

A 2012 analysis by Stanton Glantz put together results from five different studies and found that 37 per cent of all adolescent smokers are recruited to smoking by seeing it in movies.

In Ontario, this amounts to 185,000 kids who will start smoking because of what they see in movies.

In turn, 32 per cent of these teens, or 59,000 will eventually die from tobacco-related diseases like heart attack, stroke, lung disease and cancer, costing the healthcare system an extra $1.1 billion along the way.

So what can we do about it?

The simple solution supported by the U.S. Surgeon General and the World Health Organization is to make any movie with smoking scenes an R-rated movie.

Although this isn’t perfect because some kids still end up watching R-rated movies, it would cut the new smokers influenced by movies in half.

The U.S. Surgeon General suggests that this would avert one million tobacco deaths among U.S. children and teens alive today.

If we made this change to our rating system in Ontario, it would prevent 95,000 kids from smoking, save 30,000 smoking-related deaths, and save our healthcare system over $568 million in the process.

Although quit rates have gone up and smoking rates have come down to 17 per cent in this country, smoking among youths aged 20-24 is still at 27 per cent in Canada, and this is the key demographic that cigarette marketers are targeting for a lifetime of addiction.

And because of laws that now prohibit tobacco companies from advertising smoking directly to youth, portrayal of smoking in movies has become a key marketing tool for these companies.

What I hear most often from my smoking patients is that they wish they had never started.

And we now know that protecting kids from the influence of smoking in movies today is a key to preventing them from becoming smokers tomorrow.

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