Are movie characters lighting up less often?

Study's findings may not clear the air

August 17, 2005|By Kevin W. McCullough | Kevin W. McCullough,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Smoking might be less common in movies than has been perceived, researchers have reported, adding that movie characters who do light up are more likely to be lower-class bad guys, not glamorized heroes.

By tracking the smoking habits of lead characters in 477 popular American films released from 1990 through 1998, researchers found that the smoking rate was similar to the smoking rate in the population at large: 23.3 percent in movies and 21.8 percent in real life.

"This is the first objective study of smoking in the movies," said the study's lead author, Dr. Karan Omidvari, a physician in the Heart and Vascular Institute at St. Michael's Medical Center in Newark, N.J. He added that previous studies were subjective and sometimes unscientific.

R-rated films were more likely to include smoking than other films, he and his colleagues found, with 37.3 percent of R-rated films vs. 16.2 percent of PG-13 films and 8.1 percent of PG films containing smoking.

Smoking was also far more common in independent films than in films made by large studios, with 46.2 percent of independent films depicting main characters smoking, but only 18.2 percent of Hollywood films.

The findings about the smoking rate in movies contradict previous research that had found smokers often were portrayed as successful and upper class and that smoking was significantly more common in cinema than in real life.

Some of those differences might be because of the current study's methodology, which excluded science-fiction films, G-rated films and smoking that occurred in flashbacks or was performed by foreign citizens or in a foreign country. The study also included only the 10 highest-grossing movies each week during the time period.

"I think it's kind of misleading," said Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He has researched the topic of smoking in films, specifically how media portrayals of smoking influence adolescents and young adults, and has been critical of moviemakers who include portrayals of the habit. He advocates that smoking in a movie should earn it an R rating.

Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said studios have done a good job of reducing the amount of smoking in the movies. But, she pointed out, "Movies are about human behavior, and smoking is a human behavior."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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