Lighting up the screen – how films influence teen smokers

By Rachel Hynes.

I handed a bunch of DVDs to my teenager recently. They were classic 80s/90s films I thought she would enjoy – The Breakfast Club, Footloose, Reality Bites. I told her, “You’ll probably notice lots of smoking”. She came back to me later and said “No wonder you all smoked, it looks cool.  I was a little shocked. My daughter is an avowed non-smoker. Her dad and I both smoked and she bugged us until we quit (thank you darling). But something about the way Winona and Ethan sucked them back looked very appealing… even 20 years on.

Robert Pattinson in Remember Me

Robert Pattinson in 2010 film ‘Remember Me’

Smoking in teenage-marketed films is less common these days but it still exists, and it is still prevalent in adult films, which teenagers of course watch.

This month the US Surgeon General released her report, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults. From the fact sheet:

Youth who are exposed to images of smoking in movies are more likely to smoke. Those who get the most exposure to onscreen smoking are about twice as likely to begin smoking as those who get the least exposure. Images of smoking in movies have declined over the past decade; however, in 2010 nearly a third of top-grossing movies produced for children—those with ratings of G, PG, or PG-13— contained images of smoking.”

One recent study by the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies found that 15-year-olds who saw the most films showing actors smoking were 73% more likely to have tried smoking than those who had seen the fewest.

Another study, by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, found that younger teenagers are at greater risk of being influenced than older teenagers.

Reality Bites

Image sourced from

In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) called upon countries to enact policies that would restrict the depiction of smoking in films. One policy was to not identify tobacco brands in films. However, there has been no decline in tobacco brand display since 1990. As the people behind the project Smoke Free Movies says, big tobacco companies know the power of movies:

“Marlboros have featured in at least seventy-four of Hollywood’s top-grossing movies over the past fifteen years. Studies show that brands showing up on screen most often are also the most heavily-advertised in other media.”


How old is this man, really?

WHO also recommended that all future movies with scenes of smoking be given an adult rating, a proposal which has been backed by many other health and research organisations. The possible exception could be “movies that reflect the dangers of tobacco use or that depict smoking by a historical figure who smoked”.

As The Guardian pointed out, under such rules The Lord of The Rings trilogy could only be seen by 18 years and over, thanks to Gandalf’s habit. Unless they can introduce a plot twist where we learn that Gandalf is only 32 years old and not 32,000 years, and has simply lost his youthful looks through smoking. Kids, you’ve been warned.





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