Rate films with smoking 'R' for their influence on kids

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During scenes from the movie The Secret Lives of Dentists, Dana and David Hurst are seen undergoing an unholy combination of adultery and viral gastroenteritis. While Dana (Hope Davis) and their three kids are all feverish and vomiting, David (Campbell Scott) responds to the illness and betrayal in his family by . . . pulling out a pack of smokes.

It seems that in every popular movie out these days from Seabiscuit to Bad Boys II to Swimming Pool key characters are seen puffing on cigarettes. Seeing their favorite stars smoking in movies is an important factor in getting young people to start smoking, according to a recent study in the medical journal, The Lancet. The study documents the cause-and-effect relationship between exposing children to movie smoking and their subsequent adoption of this devastating addiction.

Scientists from the Dartmouth Medical School followed youngsters, ages 10-14, who were non-smokers initially, over a period of one-to-two years, beginning with more than 3,500 kids. The participants' rates of starting smoking were correlated with their exposure to scenes of smoking in a sample of movies. (Other factors known to influence smoking behavior were controlled.)

The study found two key issues that desperately need to be addressed by public health officials and, more importantly, by film industry executives:

  • The incidence of smoking in movies has accelerated during the past decade, completely the opposite of the real-world trend in the United States, where smoking rates have shown a slow, but steady decline.
  • Kids who are exposed to more movie smoking have a significantly higher rate of initiating smoking. They are almost three times more likely to start smoking, compared to peers who were not exposed to many movie smoking scenes.

Indeed, youngsters whose parents were non-smokers, and thus were at a generally lower risk of smoking themselves, had an even higher rate of movie-influenced smoking. The researchers estimated that a little more than half of all new smokers in the study group began to smoke under the influence of movies an even stronger effect than that of the usual cigarette advertising and promotion.

Hollywood bigwigs love to tell us how to live our lives. They are famously active in political and ''environmental'' crusades, and are often found testifying before Congress and other venues, where their opinions are given great weight despite their almost complete lack of qualifications on health- and science-related issues.

What will it take to get Hollywood executives to address the dangers of smoking, and launch their own efforts to promote, rather than ameliorate, this danger?

It took getting smoking-related cancer himself for screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to pen a ''mea culpa'' in The New York Times last year. When was the last time a star or studio president made a public statement condemning how his or her own movies seduce hero-worshiping kids into smoking, which will prematurely kill at least one-third of those who take it up?

In a Lancet editorial, Stanton Glantz of the University of California-San Francisco, proposed a simple but probably effective response: Add smoking to the list of factors that draw an automatic ''R'' rating for a movie.

That would likely cut down dramatically on movie smoking, as producers would want to avoid hurting attendance with an ''R'' rating. Additionally, it would keep the vulnerable under-17 crowd away from smoking scenes.

With all of the evidence of the damage to young lungs and other organs that can be provoked by movie smoking, why are there so few in Hollywood who dare to speak the name of the evil that lurks among them: tobacco?

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is medical director of the New York-based American Council on Science and Health.