Why Study Tobacco in Movies?

Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable lung disease. Scientific studies from Dartmouth College demonstrate that exposure to smoking in movies is a significant risk factor for youth smoking initiation. In fact, 37% of adolescent tobacco initiation can be credited to exposure to smoking in movies. By reducing tobacco use in film, we can reduce the number of young people initiating lifelong tobacco habits. To learn more about the issue of smoking in movies, visit UCSF's SmokeFreeMovies Campaign.

As Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! movie reviewers analyze tobacco imagery and messaging in films, they consider four critical factors:

  1. How tobacco use is portrayed:
    When tobacco use in the movies and on television is portrayed as fun, exciting, sexy, rebellious or connected to wealth and power, it reinforces common advertising themes of the tobacco industry. While glamorizing tobacco may not be the intent of the entertainment industry, the end result is that such portrayal encourages tobacco use among young people. Conversely, when anti-tobacco messages are included in movies or on TV, it has the opposite impact and may discourage young people from starting to smoke. It should be pointed out that putting tobacco into the hands of the "bad guy" may also encourage teenage tobacco use. Messages perceived by the reviewers may be different than the messages intended by the creative forces.
  2. The amount of tobacco used:
    Extensive tobacco use in movies and television suggests that smoking is more common in society than it actually is. When tobacco use is viewed as a societal norm, it implies that smoking is acceptable and is another factor in encouraging young people to use tobacco.
  3. Who uses tobacco:
    Star power sells movies: the more popular the actor, the more people likely to see the movie and the higher the box office returns. Star power can also sell tobacco use. When leading actors light up or make anti-tobacco statements, it sends a powerful message to young people about tobacco use.
  4. Where tobacco is used:
    Tremendous strides have been made to protect the health of the nonsmoker from environmental tobacco smoke. Where actors light up in movies and on television can impact efforts to reduce the harmful impacts of second hand smoke. For example, an actor lighting up around children in an enclosed area suggests to parents that this is an appropriate activity.