Today's moviegoers are more likely to see the "bad guys" light up than the educated, well-heeled heroes.

"Most investigators have concluded that smoking is portrayed as glamorous and positive, but our study shows that the exact opposite is true," says the study's author, Karan Omidvari, MD, FCCP, of the Heart and Vascular Institute at St. Michael's Medical Center in Newark, N.J., in a news release.

"Additionally, different studies in the past have subjectively concluded that movies are attempting to influence different groups of minorities to smoke. We have contradicted these findings as well."

"Children and adults of all ages can be influenced by what they view in movies," writes Paul A. Kvale, MD, FCCP, president of the American College of Chest Physicians. "This study emphasizes the need for responsible filmmaking when it comes to portraying smoking, which is an extremely addicting and deadly habit."

The depiction of tobacco as sexy and cool may be a reason for increased smoking initiation among teens, write the researchers.

Independent movie makers, who work outside the Hollywood system, are much more callous and "guilty" when it comes to portraying smoking indiscriminately, says Omidvari.

The study appears in the August issue of Chest.

Read WebMD's "CDC: Smoking Rates Continue to Drop"

More Than a Smoking Gun

In the study, U.S. researchers recorded the smoking habits of the five leading characters in all top 10 box office movies made after 1990. They show that R-rated movies are much more likely to incorporate smokers into their storyline than films rated PG and PG-13. More than a third of the R-rated movies contained smoking, while movies rated PG-13 (16 percent) or PG (8 percent) contained less smoking.

R-rated movies are the overwhelming majority of movies made and have the largest viewing audience.

The study included movies such as Armageddon, There's Something About Mary, Independence Day, Jerry Maguire, andAs Good as It Gets.

Researchers show that the rate of smoking on the big screen (23 percent) runs parallel to that in American society (22 percent). They also show that:

36 percent of bad guys smoked compared with 21 percent of the heroes. Whites (40 percent) were more apt to light up than minorities (29 percent). Male characters (26 percent) were more likely to smoke than their female characters (21 percent).

Forty-eight percent of the smokers portrayed in movies were of lower socioeconomic class, while 23 percent were in middle class, and 11 percent were in upper socioeconomic class.

Given the downward trend in recent years of smoking in the U.S., the results are not surprising. For the most part, movies mirror the behavior of the general public.

Read WebMD's "Preteens Don’t See Smoking as Addictive"

By Patti Connor, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Omidvari, K. Chest, August 2005; vol 128. News release, American College of Chest Physicians/Chest Journal. Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health, 1964.