When Cameron Diaz Lights Up, Do Teenagers Start Smoking?

When a movie star lights up a cigarette in the movies, does it really make teenagers more likely to smoke?  And if so, what can we do about it?

This topic is timely because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just reported that smoking in movies is declining. Depictions of smoking in top-grossing films peaked in 2005, but since then have declined sharply.

Why does this matter?  Does the fact that Cameron Diaz smokes a cigarette in the movie Bad Teacher, or that Tom Hanks smokes a pipe in the movie Larry Crowne, really make viewers more likely to smoke?

Research suggests that it does.  The more the kids watch movies in which people smoke, the more likely they are to begin smoking themselves.  This is a correlational finding, of course; for all we know, kids who are likely to smoke in the first place are more likely to go to see movies in which the characters smoke.  But there is good research suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship.

In one study, for example, kids watched the movie Reality Bites, in which Winona Rider and Ethan Hawke smoke liberally.  Some of the kids were randomly assigned to see the original movie, whereas others were randomly assigned to see the movie with the smoking scenes edited out.  The results?  Those who saw the movie with the smoking scenes admired smokers more and indicated more of an intention to smoke than did the kids who saw the non-smoking version.  Teenagers, like everyone else, tell themselves stories about the world, and these stories are shaped by seeing what their peers do–and by what celebrities do.  Seeing cool people in the movies light up shapes teens’ stories in harmful ways.

There is a way around this.  There was another condition in the Reality Bites study, in which the researchers showed the kids an anti-smoking advertisement before they watched the movie.  In the anti-smoking ad, an attractive high school student starts smoking and as a result transforms into an unpopular kid.  The teens who watched this ad, and then saw Reality Bites, did not become more favorable toward smoking, even when they saw the version with the smoking scenes.  Fighting fire with fire (so to speak) worked:  Showing kids how smoking can make you unpopular acted as a prophylactic, making them immune to the Hollywood depiction of smoking.

Maybe Hollywood should take this to heart and depict smokers as people with wrinkled faces, hacking coughs, and yellowing teeth, abandoned by friends and family.  There isn’t much chance of this happening, of course, but parents could be proactive and try to shape their kids’ narratives about smoking early on, before their kids see it glamorized in the movies.

[Originally posted on PsychologyToday.com]

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