Smoking in Top-Grossing Movies

The National Cancer Institute has concluded that studies indicate a causal relationship between exposure to depictions of smoking in movies and youth smoking initiation (1). Adolescents in the top quartile of exposures to onscreen tobacco incidents have been found to be approximately twice as likely to begin smoking as those in the bottom quartile (2). The 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services strategic plan to reduce tobacco use includes reducing youth exposure to onscreen smoking (3). To monitor tobacco use in movies, Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! (TUTD), a project of Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, counts occurrences of tobacco incidents in U.S. top-grossing movies each year. This report updates a previous report (4) with the latest TUTD findings. In 2010, the number of onscreen tobacco incidents in youth-rated (G, PG, or PG-13) movies continued a downward trend, decreasing 71.6% from 2,093 incidents in 2005 to 595 in 2010. Similarly, the average number of incidents per youth-rated movie decreased 66.2%, from 20.1 in 2005 to 6.8 in 2010. The degree of decline, however, varied substantially by motion picture company. The three companies with published policies designed to reduce tobacco use in their movies had an average decrease in tobacco incidents of 95.8%, compared with an average decrease of 41.7% among the three major motion picture companies and independents without policies. This finding indicates that an enforceable policy aimed at reducing tobacco use in youth-rated movies can lead to substantially fewer tobacco incidents in movies and help prevent adolescent initiation of smoking.

TUTD uses persons trained as monitors to count all tobacco incidents in those movies that are among the 10 top-grossing movies in any calendar week. During 2002-2008, U.S. movies that ranked in the top 10 for at least 1 week accounted for 83% of all movies exhibited in the United States and 96% of ticket sales. For this analysis, TUTD defined a tobacco incident 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 movies without tobacco incidents was divided by the total number of movies to calculate the percentage of movies with no incidents, and the average number of tobacco incidents per movie was calculated for each motion picture company. Results in 2010 were compared with 2005 and analyzed by motion picture company and by whether the company had a published policy aimed at decreasing the depiction of smoking in its movies.

smoking in movie

Number of tobacco incidents in top-grossing movies, by movie rating --- United States, 1991--2010


In 2010, a total of 75 (54.7%) of 137 top-grossing movies had no tobacco incidents, compared with 49 (33.3%) of 147 in 2005; among R-rated movies, 14 (29.2%) of 48 had no tobacco incidents in 2010, compared with two (4.7%) of 43 in 2005. Among youth-rated movies (G, PG, or PG-13), 61 (69.3%) of 88 had no tobacco incidents in 2010, compared with 47 (45.2%) of 104 in 2005.

From 2005 to 2010, the total number of tobacco incidents in top-grossing movies decreased 56.0%, from 4,152 to 1,825. The total number of incidents in G or PG movies decreased 93.6%, from 472 to 30, whereas the number in PG-13 movies decreased 65.1%, from 1,621 to 565, and the number in R-rated movies decreased 40.5%, from 2,059 to 1,226.

From 2005 to 2010, among the three major motion picture companies (half of the six members of the Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA]) with policies aimed at reducing tobacco use in their movies, the number of tobacco incidents per youth-rated movie decreased 95.8%, from an average of 23.1 incidents per movie to an average of 1.0 incident. For independent companies (which are not MPAA members) and the three MPAA members with no antitobacco policies, tobacco incidents decreased 41.7%, from an average of 17.9 incidents per youth-rated movie in 2005 to 10.4 in 2010, a 10-fold higher rate than the rate for the companies with policies. Among the three companies with antitobacco policies, 88.2% of their top-grossing movies had no tobacco incidents, compared with 57.4% of movies among companies without policies.

Reported by
Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, Univ of California, San Francisco; Shelley Mitchell, Kori Titus, Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails; Jonathan R. Polansky, Onbeyond, Fairfax, California. Rachel B. Kaufmann, PhD, Ursula E. Bauer, PhD, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC. Corresponding contributor: Stanton A. Glantz, [email protected], 415-476-3893.

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