Ending the Tobacco Problem - Resources for Local Action
Institute of Medicine

Call To Action


Anti-Smoking Ads in Movies

Smoking rates in films increased dramatically in the 1990s, and even though rates are declining again, youth exposure to smoking in the movies remains high. Smoking was shown in more than three-quarters of all movies in 2004 [1]. Health professionals and tobacco advocates worry that seeing actors smoke on the big screen can affect how teenagers view smoking. The stylish image of smokers on screen gives teenagers, who are very much attuned to media influences, a favorable attitude toward smoking and perpetuates the idea that smoking is the norm. 

Many young people go to the movies on a regular basis. This means they see movie stars smoking frequently. One way to counter that influence is to show anti-smoking ads before movies in which smoking occurs. Such a strategy has the potential to reach a large number of people in a cost effective way. Anti-smoking advertisements and parental restrictions both have been shown to affect adolescents’ smoking initiation. In studies done in 1999 [2]  and 2004 [3], adolescents who viewed an anti-smoking ad before a movie were more likely to have negative thoughts about the character who was smoking and they were more likely to view smoking as "not ok." 


One Organization’s Campaign to Control the Depiction of Smoking in Movies 

Smoke Free Movies, founded in 2002, is a coalition based in California working to regulate smoking in movies. Since the coalition’s efforts have no legislative solution; it has encouraged organizations, both national and state, to put direct pressure on the movie industry in their own ways, according to Stan Glanz, the founder of Smoke Free Movies [4]. Early on, the group focused its efforts on the Motion Picture Association of America,(MPAA) but the campaign realized in 2006 that this tactic was not as effective as working with individual movie studios. As of 2009, three studios have policies in place regarding smoking in movies. Time Warner’s policy is the most comprehensive, as compared to Disney and Universal Studios. Since 2005, the studio has not permitted smoking in any of its “G” rated movies; it has reduced the number of PG and PG-13 movies that include smoking; it has begun showing anti-smoking public service announcements before movies; and it has implemented a policy that ensures no payment made is related to the depiction of tobacco products [5].

The Smoke Free Movies campaign focuses on promoting four key steps to substantially reduce youth exposure to smoking in movies. The first step is to rate all movies containing smoking with an “R” rating, with exceptions for movies that clearly show the dangers of smoking or when it is necessary in order to represent a real historical figure. The movie studios are adamantly opposed to this step, and while the MPAA claims to consider smoking when assigning ratings, has not assigned a movie an “R” rating based on smoking.

The second step is to certify no payoffs from tobacco companies, ensuring that no one involved in the movie receives anything of value in exchange for displaying tobacco products. As of January 2008, Time Warner is the only studio to have passed a no payoff policy. Universal Studios includes a statement in fine print stating that any smoking depicted is a result of artistic decisions and that smoking can be hazardous to your health; however, there is nothing in its statement about payoffs.

The third step is to require that anti-smoking ads be shown before movies that involve smoking or tobacco products in any way. These ads should be included in theaters and in any distribution of the movie, such as on DVDs. The ads should not be produced with any connection to tobacco companies and should be included regardless of the movie’s rating. As of 2009, six major studios include effective anti-smoking ads on DVDs; however, they only include the ads with movies with youth ratings, not movies that are rated “R.” [6]

The final step is to stop identifying tobacco brands in movies, including background scenery such as billboards. According to Smoke Free Movies, there is less brand identification in movies today than there used to be [7].

A variety of tobacco control advocacy groups have endorsed Smoke Free Movies’ four steps and are working to gain support for them. The groups range from large national and international groups, such as the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, to smaller local groups like the Los Angeles Department of Health Services and the Oklahoma State PTA [8]. Forty Attorneys General have been engaged at various levels in their states in promoting the four steps. Their support has helped in encouraging other groups to support regulation for smoking in movies. However, several groups of stakeholders in the movie industry—including the movie studios, the MPAA, producers, actors, directors, writers, editors, and property masters—oppose restrictions on smoking in movies. 


Further Information

Research on youth has found that:

  1. Seeing actors smoking in movies influences youth perceptions of smoking.
  2. Watching actors who smoke in movies increases youth’s risk of smoking.
  3. The increased risk of smoking that is caused by seeing smoking in movies can be reduced with anti-smoking ads and parental restrictions.

In fact, research has found that even small increases in the number of movies watched—whether on cable movie channels, videos, or in theaters—can increase exposure to smoking in movies 10 to 20 percent [9]. And studies have shown that teens whose favorite movie stars use tobacco on screen are significantly more likely to be at a more advanced stage of smoking uptake and to have more favorable attitudes towards smoking that teens who choose non-smoking stars. A 2001 study found that adolescents whose favorite star smoked in one film were more likely to be smokers, and the likelihood doubled if their favorite star smoked in two films and doubled again if they smoked in three or more films [10]. The effect can be long-term. A study in 2004 found that adolescents whose favorite star smoked onscreen were 1.36 times more likely to have smoked three years later [11].

In a 2003 study examining adolescents’ responses to smoking in various media outlets, more than half the sample (52 percent) rated smoking as a “good thing to do.” [12] Other studies have found that smoking in movies reinforces the perception that smoking is a way to reduce stress and increase self-image and adult independence [13].

[1] Worth, K., Tanski, S., & Sargent, J. (2006). Trends in Top Box Office Movie Tobacco Use, 1996-2004. First Look Report. Washington, DC: American Legacy Foundation
[2] Pechmann C & Shih CF. (1999) Smoking scenes in movies and antismoking advertisements before movies: Effects on youth. Journal of Marketing 63 1-13.
[3] Edwards, C.A., Harris, W.C., Cook, D.R., Bedford, K.F., & Zuo, Y. (2004). Out of the smokescreen: Does an anti-smoking advertisement affect young women's perception of smoking in movies and their intention to smoke? Tobacco Control 13 (3) 277-282.
[4] Glanz, S. (2009) Personal communication, May 14, 2009.
[5] Time Warner (2008)

[6] Smoke Free Movies: The Solution http://smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu/solution/index.html
[7] Smoke Free Movies Timeline http://smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu/pdf/SFM-Timeline-200509.pdf
[8] Smoke Free Movies http://smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu/solution/index.html and http://smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu/whoswho/index.html
[9] Sargent, J.D., Dalton, M.A., Heatherton, T., Beach, M. (2003). Modifying exposure to smoking depicted in movies: A novel approach to preventing adolescent smoking.  Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 157 (7): 643-648.
[10] Tickle, J.J., Sargent, J.D., Dalton, M.A., Beach, M.L., & Heatherton, T.F. (2001). Favorite movie stars, their tobacco use in contemporary movies, and its association with adolescent smoking. Tobacco Control 10 (1): 16-22.
[11] Distefan, J.M., Pierce, J.P., & Gilpin, E.A. (2004). Do favorite movie stars influence adolescent smoking initiation?  American Journal of Public Health 94 (7): 1239-1244.
[12] Watson, N.A., Clakson, J. P., Donovan, R.J., Giles-Corti, B. (2003). Filthy or fashionable? Young people's perceptions of smoking in the media. Health Education Research 18(5): 554-567.
[13] McCool, J.P., Cameron, L., Petrie, K. (2004). Stereotyping the smoker: adolescents' appraisals of smokers in film. Tobacco Control 13 (3):308-314, 
McCool, J.P., Cameron, L.D., Petrie, K.J. (2001). Adolescent perceptions of smoking imagery in film. Social Science and Medicine 52 (10): 1577-1587, and McCool, J.P., Cameron, L.D., Petrie, K.J. (2003). Interpretations of smoking in film by older teenagers. Social Science and Medicine 56 (5):1023-1032.