Bad Influence: TV, movies linked to adolescent smoking

White adolescents who watch a lot of R-rated movies are nearly three times as likely to try smoking as are their peers who watch little of such fare, a new study finds. Those who have televisions in their bedrooms are twice as likely to take a puff.

In contrast, black teens’ smoking isn’t associated with how many R-rated movies or hours of television they watched, researchers report in the March Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

While it might seem unsurprising that television shows and movies—with characters often puffing away—would influence youth smoking, few studies had recorded the effects of such media exposure over time, says study coauthor Christine Jackson, a social ecologist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Chapel Hill, N.C.

In 2001 and 2002, Jackson and her colleagues interviewed 735 children ages 12 to 14 in their homes. Roughly equal numbers of blacks and whites participated, and all said that they had never smoked. The team gauged the children’s exposure to 93 films, including 23 R-rated movies, playing in theaters during the study. Previous research had shown that R-rated movies show two to three times as much smoking as PG-13 movies do. The kids also averaged 4.7 hours of television a day.

At follow-up 2 years later, 30 percent of the teens reported having tried cigarettes. When the researchers adjusted the data to offset differences such as grades, having friends who smoke, and parents’ rules about television and movie viewing, the link between smoking and viewing more R-rated films and unsupervised television persisted in white teens.

Some research suggests that movies increasingly put smoking in a bad light (SN: 9/3/05, p. 158: Available to subscribers at Movies put smoking in a bad light). But children may still emulate a character who’s a villain or an antihero, says epidemiologist Madeline A. Dalton of Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H.

“Think of James Dean,” Dalton says. Smoking can be “a rebellious expression more than anything else,” and tough movie characters who smoke might look attractive to teens. “They have an edge,” she adds.

Stanton A. Glantz, a cardiovascular researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, notes that the new work bolsters earlier data linking excessive television viewing to teen smoking. Even though there’s less smoking per hour on television than in R-rated movies, children see many more hours of television.

None of the scientists could explain why black teens in this study, who smoked just as much as the white teens, showed less influence from films and television. Since more movies and television programs have white leading actors rather than black ones, black teens may identify less with these characters than white teens do, Jackson surmises.

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