Do Movies Cause Smoking?

Snuffing out another nanny state myth.


In the 2005 movie The Jacket, Kelly Lynch plays a drunk who burns to death after falling asleep while smoking. According to the activists who object to cinematic smoking, Lynch's character is part of an insidious plot to lure children into the habit by making it seem cool and glamorous.

The movie research cited by anti-smoking activists typically defines pro-tobacco messages broadly enough to include all instances of smoking, actual or implied, along with discussions of tobacco and glimpses of cigarette logos, lighters, or ashtrays. A new study takes a more discriminating approach, looking at the behavior and characteristics of the leading characters in 447 popular films released since 1990, and comes to some rather different conclusions.

Anti-smoking activists assert that smoking is more common in movies than it is in real life. The new study, reported in the August issue of the medical journal Chest, found that, overall, "contemporary American movies do not have a higher prevalence of smoking than the general U.S. population." The activists complain that movies put cigarettes in the hands of attractive protagonists and link smoking to success and affluence. The Chest study found that "bad guys" were more likely to smoke than "good guys" and that, as in real life, smoking was associated with lower socioeconomic status.

"Most investigators have concluded that smoking is portrayed as glamorous and positive, but our study shows that the exact opposite is true," says lead author Karan Omidvari, a physician at St. Michael's Medical Center in Newark. Likewise, there was no evidence to support the idea that movie studios conspire with tobacco companies to target women or minorities.

Having shown that the indictment of Hollywood for pushing cigarettes is based largely on weak studies and loose talk, Omidvari and his colleagues were quick to add that they nevertheless object to smoking in movies. According to Robert McCaffree, president of the foundation that publishes Chest, the study "emphasizes the need for change in this area, including increasing anti-tobacco messages in coming attractions and films."

Stanton Glantz, an anti-smoking activist who was involved in much of the research debunked by Omidvari's study, has a different solution in mind: a mandatory R rating for movies that include smoking. Last fall his Smoke Free Movies campaign took out full-page ads in The New York Times and other publications claiming that adopting this policy "would cut movie smoking's effect on kids in half, saving 50,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone."

It's hard to say how many teenagers would be deterred by greater use of the R rating–especially if their parents knew that a single smoking scene was enough to qualify an otherwise unobjectionable movie for the not-without-a-parent-or-guardian category. But the weakest link in the chain of reasoning that charges the Motion Picture Association of America with killing 137 (middle-aged or elderly) "kids" a day by failing to make this simple change in its rating system is the assumption that half of the teenagers who start smoking do so because they saw it in the movies.

That assumption is based on a 2003 Lancet study that found 10-to-14-year-olds who had seen movies with many smoking scenes were more likely to try cigarettes than kids who had seen movies with fewer smoking scenes. The problem with attributing this association to the modeling effect of cinematic smoking is that it's impossible to control for all the differences in personality and environment that make kids more likely to see movies with a lot of smoking in them, which already tend to be R-rated movies.

Methodological difficulties aside, the size of this alleged effect is implausibly large, to put it mildly. In a commentary on the Lancet study, Glantz said cinematic smoking accounts for even more real-life smoking than advertising does: 52 percent vs. 34 percent. (He explained that is "probably because…the subliminal effects of smoking in movies is [sic] a more powerful force than overt advertising.") Is it even conceivable that exposure to movies and advertising causes 86 percent of smoking? That all other factors in life together contribute only 14 percent?

While such claims are patently absurd, there's an unstated premise that's even more offensive: that every filmmaker should make his work conform to the dictates of the health nannies. Omidvari and his colleagues found that smoking was especially common in independent films, a fact they said may be due to the "antiestablishment or free-spirited" character of such movies. If anyone is making smoking seem cool, it's self-righteous busybodies like Stanton Glantz.