There may be some truth to concerns that kids are influenced by seeing smoking on the silver screen.

A large national study in the current issue of Pediatrics suggests that notion is well-founded. Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School and Norris Cotton Cancer Center found children aged 10 to 14 were more likely to try cigarettes if they saw a large amount of smoking in movies, regardless of whether their parents or friends smoked.

Movie 'Bad Guys' More Likely to Light Up

First National Study

According to the authors, this is the first national study to demonstrate a direct link between exposure to smoking in movies and the likelihood of trying cigarettes. The researchers asked 6,522 children whether they had ever tried smoking and which movies they had seen on a list of 50 randomly selected titles. Participants with the highest level of exposure to movie smoking were 2.6 times more likely to try smoking compared with those with the lowest exposure.

"We found that as the amount of exposure to smoking in movies increased, the rate of smoking also increased." James Sargent, MD, professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School, says, in a news release. "Part of the reason that exposure to movie smoking has such a considerable impact on adolescent smoking is because it is a very strong social influence on kids ages 10-14.”

Sargent says the influence of movie smoking outweighed whether the children were involved in sports or whether their parents or friends were smokers. The authors conclude that, all else being equal, more than a third of the participants who tried smoking did so as a result of exposure to smoking in movies.

R-Rated Movies Linked With Teen Smoking

Exposure Higher in Blacks, Hispanics

The study indicates Hispanic and black youths are exposed to significantly more movie smoking than white children. "The finding on minorities is concerning," Linda Titus-Ernstoff, PhD, professor of community and family medicine at Dartmouth, says, in a news release. "Movie smoking may have a greater impact in these populations."

The researchers make several suggestions to curb the apparent influence of movie smoking on kids: incorporate smoking into the movie rating system, include an antismoking preview on DVDs that depict smoking, and persuade the movie industry to reduce scenes containing smoking.

Youth Smoking Rates Hit Standstill

MPAA Defends Artistic Freedom

In Congressional hearings last year, Jack Valenti, then CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, said filmmakers should have the artistic freedom to portray smoking in movies, because it can help identify characters or the time and place of the story. However, he said the MPAA will work to educate producers, directors, and actors about the potential influence of movie smoking on young people.

By Sherry Rauh, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Sargent, J. Pediatrics, Nov. 7, 2005; vol. 116: 1183–1191. News release, Dartmouth Medical School. News release, American Academy of Pediatrics. News release, Motion Picture Association of America.