In a report in Thorax, chief tobacco control professionals state that smoking in films continues to be a “major and persistent driver” for taking up smoking among children and young individuals, and that all the parties responsible – makers, regulators, and politicians are “abjectly failing to control.”

Dr. Ailsa Lyons and Professor John Britton of the UK Center for Tobacco Control Studies, explain their unsuccessful attempts to convince the national regulator, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), and the government’s Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) to reclassify films that contain smoking scenes into the same category applied to films that contain sex and violence.

The BBFC responded to the claim that the way films are currently classified is failing to protect children from “this potential harmful imagery,” by stating that their guidelines were “proportionate; take due account of the available evidence of harm; and reflect the clear wishes of the public.”

A senior policy advisor from BBFC later told the authors that “any change in current practice would be likely to provoke powerful opposition from the film industry, and was therefore unlikely to occur in the absence of public complaint or a directive from the DCMS.”

The authors argue that: “Protecting children from an exposure this is so potentially damaging is, however, a national governmental responsibility and the solution to the problem is simple: for the UK and indeed other film classification agencies to apply a default 18 classification on all films containing smoking.

Smoking in films remains a major and persistent driver of smoking uptake among children and young people, which the actions of the irresponsible film markers, incompetent regulators, and insouciant politicians are abjectly failing to control.”

Several investigations published in the current issue of Thorax, contain evidence in support of their argument, one of which reveals that in the UK and other countries, teenagers who are exposed to smoking scenes in films, have a considerably higher chance of starting, and continuing, smoking.

The investigators at Bristol University used data on smoking behavior gathered from over 5,000 teenagers who were 15 years old, who participated in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

50 films, randomly selected from 366 box office hits between 2001 and 2005, where presented to the participants. The researchers asked the teens whether they has seen any of the movies and if they had ever tried a cigarette and/or were current smokers.

On average the teens had watched 17 of the 50 films. Scenes that contained smoking were counted in each of the 50 films and ranged from 38 to over 109, with the average being 68.

The teens responses indicated that the more films they watched containing smoking scenes, the more likely they were to have tried smoking themselves. After taking into account other influential social and family factors, participants who were exposed to movies with the most smoking scenes were 59% more likely to have started smoking in comparison to those exposed to the least.

Even though alcohol use and smoking are both known to influence the start of smoking, these teenagers were still 32% more likely to start smoking.

The authors discovered from a combined analysis of this investigation and similar published studies from many countries, that teenagers who are exposed to high levels of smoking scenes in films are over two times as likely to start smoking, compared to teens exposed to low levels.

The authors explain:

“Even after controlling for social, family, and behavior factors and mediating variables, increased exposure to smoking depictions in films increases the risk of smoking initiation in adolescence.”

They highlight that teens in the UK are significantly more exposed to smoking scenes that teens in the U.S., because 79% of films in the United States rated at ‘adult’ are rated as suitable for young individuals in the UK.

They explain:

“Films ought to be rated by exposure to smoking the same way that they are currently rated by level of violence: smoking and its adverse consequences are certainly a larger public health problem.”

Written by: Grace Rattue