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Published: Thursday, 6/12/2003

Silver screen, blue haze

Were there's a will to encourage youth smoking without overtly promoting its use, there's a way that unfortunately is even more effective than regular advertising: Get Hollywood to slip more gratuitous smoking scenes into the movies.

Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School discovered - not surprisingly - that adolescents like to imitate movie actors who light up. The investigators first studied how much several thousand children aged 10-14 had been exposed to smoking scenes in 50 popular movies.

A year or two later, researchers contacted the same children to see how many had started smoking. Those exposed to a higher percentage of smoking scenes were 2.7 times more likely to take up the habit. The Dartmouth study found that 52.2 percent of children who started smoking did so because of the subconscious suggestive effects of watching actors smoking their way through plots.

In a commentary appearing with the study in the British medical journal The Lancet, noted tobacco control expert Dr. Stanton Glantz wrote that the tobacco industry has known for decades how powerful subliminal effects can be in movies with smoking.

Dr. Glantz, who is with the Center for Tobacco Control Research at the University of California at San Francisco, said the tobacco industry reneged on pledges to end the practice of paid-product placements in movies.

Moreover he said, the frequency of smoking in top-grossing movies has doubled since 1990. By 2000 it had in fact returned to typical 1950s levels, when smoking was prevalent both on and off the big screens. A disturbing 60 percent of smoking-related content appears in movies geared toward young people with G, PG, or PG-13 ratings.

Armed with what he calls “... the strongest and most convincing evidence to date that smoking in movies promotes initiation of smoking in adolescents,” Dr. Glantz is campaigning to change movie ratings to reflect excessive use of smoking scenes with no apparent bearing on the film's story line, character development, or historical relevance.

His efforts, backed by the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization, would give movies that glamorize smoking a “restricted” or R-rating. That would exclude children under 17 unless accompanied by an adult.

That might cut into studio profits, and in turn, quickly convince movie makers that their action hero doesn't necessarily need to pull out a Marlboro after a busy day of blowing away the bad guys.

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