Hollywood to Kids: Smoking Isn’t Cool

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Were they still alive today, John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart might have been given a serious image makeover. The message from Hollywood last year: smoking in movies is not cool anymore.

The number of scenes that show cigarettes has fallen dramatically in the last five years, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The trend is led by three major motion picture companies with policies to limit onscreen tobacco use in movies aimed at youngsters.

Top-grossing movies in 2010 contained fewer than half as many “tobacco incidents” as the top-grossing movies of 2005, the report says. The drop was even more impressive among “youth-rated” movies — those rated G, PG or PG-13 — with a decrease of 71.6%, from 2,093 tobacco incidents in 2005 to 595 incidents in 2010.

Among the three major motion picture companies with the tobacco-limiting policies, average tobacco incidents per youth-rated movie fell by more than 95%.

For the purposes of this study, which was published in the CDC’s regular bulletin Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a “tobacco incident” was defined as any onscreen “use or implied use of a tobacco product by an actor.” A new “incident” was said to begin any time the camera cuts to (or back to) a smoking actor, or any time someone new lights up onscreen.

The California group “Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!” counts the number of such incidents in every movie that ranks among the 10 top-grossing movies in the U.S. in any single calendar week. At the end of the year, counts from each of those movies are added together. Those annual totals were the basis for the figures published Thursday in the new CDC report.

Government officials hope that a decline in onscreen smoking can lead to a decline in real-life teen smoking, too. According to the National Cancer Institute, a previous study showed that adolescents in the top quartile of exposure to smoking in movies — that is, those teens who watched the most movies with smoking in them — were roughly twice as likely to take up smoking as adolescents in the bottom quartile. Watching actors smoke, it seems, can encourage kids to take up smoking themselves.

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