Half Of Top Films Still Feature Tobacco

After peaking in 2005, on-screen smoking in the top movies has declined by almost half to 1,935 recorded instances in 2009. All told, 51 percent of the top movies in 2009 didn’t show tobacco use at all, the first time a majority, albeit a thin one, of big films have been tobacco-free.

For movies kids are most likely to see (rated G, PG and PG-13), 61 percent were tobacco-free last year.

Exposure to onscreen smoking in movies increases the probability that youths will start smoking. Youths who are heavily exposed to onscreen smoking are approximately two to three times more likely to begin smoking than youths who are lightly exposed (1); a similar, but smaller effect exists for young adults (2). To monitor the extent to which tobacco use is shown in popular movies, Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! (TUTD), a project of Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, counted the occurrences of tobacco use (termed “incidents”) shown in U.S. top-grossing movies during 1991-2009. This report summarizes the results of that study, which found that the number of tobacco incidents depicted in the movies during this period peaked in 2005 and then progressively declined. Top-grossing movies released in 2009 contained 49% of the number of onscreen smoking incidents as observed in 2005 (1,935 incidents in 2009 versus 3,967 incidents in 2005). Further reduction of tobacco use depicted in popular movies could lead to less initiation of smoking among adolescents. Effective methods to reduce the potential harmful influence of onscreen tobacco use should be implemented.

To conduct this analysis, TUTD counted the number of incidents of tobacco use in the 50 top-grossing movies each year during 1991-2001 and in all movies that were among the 10 top-grossing movies in any calendar week during 2002-2009. U.S. movies that rank in the top 10 for at least 1 week account for 83% of all movies released in U.S. theaters each year and 98% of all ticket sales (3). For each time frame, teams of trained observers reviewed each movie and counted tobacco incidents (3).* An incident was defined as the use or implied use of a tobacco product by an actor. A new incident occurred each time 1) a tobacco product went off screen and then back on screen, 2) a different actor was shown with a tobacco product, or 3) a scene changed, and the new scene contained the use or implied off-screen use of a tobacco product. The number of in-theater impressions (one person seeing one tobacco incident one time) delivered in theatrical release was obtained by multiplying the number of incidents in each movie by the total number of tickets sold nationwide to the movie. The number of movies without any depiction of tobacco use also was counted.

Cumulatively, more movies qualify for the weekly top 10 category in a given year than for the annual top 50 category. Estimated counts of tobacco incidents for 1991-2001 were adjusted for the larger sampling frame used later, based on prior research on movie grosses and tobacco incidents for 2002-2007 (3). Approximately one third (34.5%) of 2002-2007 weekly top 10 movies also were included in the annual list of top 50 movies. Weekly top 10 movies that were not in the annual top 50 category had, on average, slightly fewer tobacco incidents than movies that were in the top 50 (21.5 incidents versus 23.0 incidents). To adjust for the difference in study methodology across the two periods so that results would be comparable, incident counts for 1991-2001 were inflated by a factor of 2.7 (calculated as [1/0.345] × [21.5/23.0]). The count of movies lacking tobacco depictions was inflated by 3.0 to maintain whole numbers.

The total number of incidents in the entire sample of top-grossing U.S. movies (Figure 1) ranged from 2,106 to 3,386 per year from 1991 to 1997, decreased to 1,612 in 1998, and then more than doubled to peak at 3,967 in 2005. From 2005 to 2009, the number of incidents dropped steadily, to 1,935 incidents in 2009. More than 99% of tobacco incidents related to smoking (versus smokeless tobacco use).

During 1991-2001, total in-theater impressions varied between 30 billion and 60 billion per year, then generally declined to a low of approximately 17 billion impressions in 2009 (Figure 2). The percentage of all top-grossing movies that did not show tobacco use exceeded 50% (51%; 74/145) for the first time in 2009 (Figure 3); similarly, the percentage of top-grossing, youth-rated movies (G/PG/PG-13) that did not show tobacco use generally has increased since 2003, reaching an all-time high of 61% (58/95) in 2009. Nonetheless, in 2009, more than half (54%; 32/59) of PG-13 movies contained incidents of tobacco use, down from 65% (133/205) during 2006-2008 and 80% (107/133) during 2002-2003.

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