Smoking on the silver screen

Smoking on screenTobacco use causes nearly five million deaths worldwide each year – more than any other avoidable cause. In England 85 per cent of all lung cancer deaths and 80 per cent of all Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease deaths are attributable to smoking.

Preventing smoking is a public health priority and because the majority of smokers become addicted in their teens, measures to prevent the exposure of children and young people to tobacco products are especially important.

Adolescents who view tobacco use in film and who admire leading actors and actresses whose characters smoke in films are arguably more likely to view smoking favourably and are more likely to start smoking themselves.

However, whilst tobacco advertising and sponsorship are now heavily restricted in the UK and many other countries, tobacco imagery in the media has not been controlled to the same extent.

Recent research by Ailsa Lyons, Ann McNeill, Yilu Chen and John Britton at the ESRC-funded UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies (UKCTCS) looked at images of tobacco and related products in the most popular films shown in the UK.

"We found that while tobacco imagery has declined substantially over the past 20 years it continues to occur and predominantly in films categorised as suitable for viewing by children and young people," said Ailsa Lyons.

The UKCTCS research sought to objectively measure the extent to which tobacco imagery and specific products have appeared in the most popular films viewed in the UK from 1989 to 2008, in relation to year of release, the age certification allocated to the film by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the country of origin and other characteristics.

The researchers used listings of the most commercially successful films based on gross UK cinema box office takings data provided by the UK Film Council to identify the most popular films viewed in the UK for each year between 1989 – the first year that UK-specific figures were collected – and 2008.

The researchers viewed and coded the films to record appearances of tobacco or tobacco-related products, inferred tobacco use, and verbal or non-verbal inference such as a comment on smoking or leaving a scene with a packet of cigarettes and lighter.

Of the 300 films analysed 15, 27, 26, 26 and six per cent respectively were BBFC U, PG, 12/12A, 15 and 18 categories. Most films (94 per cent) were produced by or in partnership with US producers, and 68 per cent were produced solely from the US. UK producers were involved in 20 per cent of films, and were solely responsible for three per cent.

Other countries were involved in producing 19 per cent of films, but only one film, Muriel’s Wedding, had no UK or USA involvement. The 15 most popular films typically accounted for 50 per cent of each year’s gross UK cinema box office takings.

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