Anti-Smoking Fibs Continue to Entice Journalists


In an article about smoking on TV and in the movies, headlined "Images Continue to Entice Kids to Smoke" in the Ventury County Star, Wall Street Journal health writer Tara Parker-Pope unskeptically repeats and even embellishes the claims of anti-smoking activists. "Several studies show that regular exposure to smoking images on television and in movies dramatically increases a child's risk for trying cigarettes and becoming a smoker," she writes. What the studies actually show is an association between watching adult-oriented fare (which is more likely to feature tobacco use) and smoking. It's not clear whether the viewing habits cause the smoking or simply reflect personality and environmental factors that independently make smoking more likely. The question is whether kids who see a lot of R-rated movies are different from those who don't in ways that affect their attraction to cigarettes.

Parker-Pope also implies that the prevalence of smoking in movies is three times as high as it is in real life:

Of the 50 top-grossing films of 2004 and 2005, 66 percent contained depictions of smoking, with an average frequency of 12.8 incidents per hour, according to research by the American Lung Association chapter in Sacramento. That's the highest measured incidence in a decade. Notably, the incidence of smoking in the movies is far higher than in real life, where about 21 percent of U.S. adults and about 22 percent of high school students smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But these two numbers, the 66 percent and the 21 percent, are not comparable. If two-thirds of the movies included smoking, that does not mean two-thirds of the characters smoked. A 2005 study published in the journal Chest looked at a larger sample of films and found that "contemporary American movies do not have a higher prevalence of smoking than the general U.S. population." (The study also found that smoking in the movies was concentrated among poor people and villains.)

Finally, Parker-Pope leaves the impression that cinematic smoking is on the rise. She quotes the dean of the Harvard School of Public Health to that effect, and the Ventury County Star subhead says, "Research Shows Depictions in Movies Are Rising." Yet the Motion Picture Association of America reports that the share of movies including "even a fleeting glimpse of smoking" dropped from 60 percent to 52 percent between July 2004 and July 2006. Does Parker-Pope have reason to believe the MPAA made those numbers up, or did she leave them out because they undermined the anti-smoking movement's argument, which she has adopted as her own?

[Thanks to Linda Stewart for the tip.]