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Prevalence of smoking among major movie characters: 1996–2004
  1. Keilah A Worth1,
  2. Sonya Dal Cin1,
  3. James D Sargent1,2
  1. 1Cancer Prevention Research Program, Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Lebanon, New Hampshire, USA
  2. 2Department of Pediatrics, Dartmouth Medical School, Lebanon, New Hampshire, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 J D Sargent
 Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, NH 03756, USA; james.d.sargent{at}


Background: Reports of a relationship between watching smoking in movies and smoking among adolescents have prompted greater scrutiny of smoking in movies by the public health community.

Objective: To assess the smoking prevalence among adult and adolescent movie characters, examine trends in smoking in movies over time, and compare the data with actual smoking prevalence among US adults and adolescents.

Design and methods: Smoking status of all major human adolescent and adult movie characters in the top 100 box office hits from 1996 to 2004 (900 movies) was assessed, and smoking prevalence was examined by Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating and year of release.

Results: The movies contained 5944 major characters, of whom 4911 were adults and 466 were adolescents. Among adult movie characters, the overall smoking prevalence was 20.6%; smoking was more common in men than in women (22.6% v 16.1%, respectively, p<0.001), and was related to MPAA rating category (26.9% for movies rated R (restricted, people aged <17 years require accompanying adult), 17.9% for PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned that some material might be inappropriate for children) and 10.4% for G/PG (general audiences, all ages; parental guidance suggested for children), p<0.001). In 1996, the smoking prevalence for major adult movie characters (25.7%) was similar to that in the actual US population (24.7%). Smoking prevalence among adult movie characters declined to 18.4% in 2004 (p for trend <0.001), slightly below that for the US population for that year (20.9%). Examination of trends by MPAA rating showed that the downward trend in smoking among adult movie characters was statistically significant in movies rated G/PG and R, but not in those rated PG-13. A downward trend over time was also found for smoking among adolescent movie characters. There was no smoking among adult characters in 43.3% of the movies; however, in 39% of the movies, smoking prevalence among adult characters was higher than that in the US adult population in the year of release.

Conclusions: Smoking prevalence among major adolescent and adult movie characters is declining, with the downward trend among adult characters weakest for PG-13-rated movies. Although many movies depict no adult smoking, more than one third depict smoking as more prevalent than that among US adults at the time of release.

  • MPAA, Motion Picture Association of America
  • MTFS, Monitoring the Future Survey

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  • Funding: This study was supported by grant number CA-77026 from the National Cancer Institute.

  • Competing interests: None.