Personal habits like smoking are influenced by many factors such as family, environment, and peer pressure. Teens have also been shown to be highly influenced by images and messages delivered through the media. This can make teens more likely to mimic smoking they see on television or in the movies. About one-third of teens that try smoking will become established smokers, putting them at risk for a number of serious illnesses.
A school-based survey in New Hampshire in 1999 found that teens most exposed to characters smoking in the movies were more likely to start smoking. Researchers from Dartmouth Medical School wanted to determine if the increased rates of exposure to movie smoking also increased the rate of established or regular smoking in teens. The study, published in Pediatrics, found that the higher the level of movie-smoking exposure, the higher the chance of the teen becoming an established smoker.
This cohort study used a follow-up survey on 1,791 children. The children had all participated in the 1999 study when they were 10-14 years of age. The initial baseline survey included questions about known risk factors for smoking and smoking status. The 1999 survey also determined the level of movie-smoking exposure by offering the teens a list of 50 movies that were popular between 1988 and 1999 and had smoking images. The students were divided in to four groups based on their level of exposure (level 1 least movie exposure-level 4 highest movie exposure).
The follow-up survey for this study was given to the teens 7-8 years after the 1999 study. This survey only focused on the total number of cigarettes the teens had smoked. If a teen had smoked more than 100 cigarettes, it was defined as established smoking. The risk of established smoking increased as movie exposure increased. When compared to the teens with the least smoking movie exposure (level 1):
There are other factors that have been shown to influence teen smoking such social pressures, sensation seeking, self-esteem, and parental education and disapproval. Even after accounting for these influences, movie exposure still had a significant effect on teen smoking.
Smoking is deadly. No one should do it. If an adolescent can make it through high school without picking up the habit, they are very unlikely to start later on, particularly if they attend college. However, children who begin smoking regularly are at extremely high risk of becoming lifelong smokers. Anything that can be done to safely and effectively prevent teens from smoking ought to be done.
One approach, based on studies like this, attempts to limit the exposure of teens to risk factors for smoking initiation. While a variety of groups are working to decrease the amount of smoking images in media directed at youth, it is unrealistic to believe that children will never be exposed to smoking images. Other methods are necessary. The importance of direct and frequent communication with your child about the dangers of smoking cannot be overemphasized. Talk to your child about images seen in ads or movies, the dangers of smoking, and ways to handle peer pressure. This will only work, of course, if you don’t smoke yourself. If you do smoke and have had trouble quitting, there’s no better motivation than the health of your child.
American Heart Association
American Lung Association
National Cancer Institute
Dalton MA, Beach ML, Adachi-Mejia AM, Longacre MR, Sargent JD, Titus-Ernstoff L. Early exposure to movie smoking predicts established smoking by older teens and young adults.Pediatrics.2009 Apr 23;123(4):551-558.
Last reviewed June 2009 by Richard Glickman-Simon, MD