Special Feature: How Do Movie Characters' Motives for Smoking Affect Adolescents?

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Nearly 100 studies conducted to date have examined the connection between smoking in movies and adolescent smoking. However, none of these have considered whether or not the way smoking is portrayed on the silver screen is an influence.

So, do movie characters' motivations for smoking affect smoking risk for adolescents?

A recent RAND Health study asked this very question, resulting in some compelling findings that could have profound implications for how we understand media's influence on adolescent health and substance use.

Why study movie characters' motivations for smoking and their influence on adolescents?

The World Health Organization has identified adolescent exposure to smoking in movies as a significant global health concern. Adolescents view hundreds of “smoking impressions” in films each year; these impressions have been linked to adolescent smoking in numerous studies.

Movie characters who smoke convey the message that smoking serves particular desires, such as wanting to facilitate social interaction or reduce negative feelings. According to cognitive social learning theory, adolescents could learn about such smoking motives by viewing them in movies. If evidence supports this theory, it may have policy implications for how to mitigate the effect of movie smoking exposure on adolescent smoking.

What movie character motives for smoking did the study examine? What kinds of scenes did the adolescents watch?

More than 350 middle school students, aged 11 to 14, first viewed scenes that involved no character smoking. About a week later, these participants viewed scenes from the same films, featuring the same actors under similar circumstances—this time with onscreen smoking.

For the smoking scenes, participants were randomly chosen to view movie scenes that conveyed one of three motives:

  • smoking to relax
  • smoking to facilitate social interaction
  • smoking with no apparent motive

Scenes were selected from 28 wide-release films, rated PG to R. None of the scenes had profane, sexual, or violent content, and a diverse range of actors (i.e., gender and race) appeared in all scenes. Scenes with different smoking motives differed only by the type of smoking motives presented, and smoking and nonsmoking scenes differed only by the presence of smoking.

How did the study determine adolescent smoking risk?

Participants answered questions about their smoking risk before viewing any movie scenes, to establish a baseline, then once more after having watched smoking scenes that conveyed one of the three character motives. Researchers compiled the results of these, forming a composite score that represents future smoking risk. Specifically, questions determined:

  • smoking attitudes (e.g., Smoking is [very good / very bad].)
  • perceived smoking norms (e.g., Out of every 10 people your age, how many do you think smoke?)
  • perceived risk, to determine what effect (if any) middle schoolers thought smoking would have on health
  • ability to resist smoking, particularly under peer pressure
  • smoking outcome expectancies, assessing participants' expectations for smoking, both positive (e.g., Smokers are more fun to be around than nonsmokers.) and negative (e.g., Smokers have health problems.)
  • future smoking risk (e.g., Do you think you will smoke a cigarette anytime in the next year?)
  • previous exposure to movie smoking (i.e., During the last 30 days, about how often have you seen someone smoking in movies?)
  • smoking status (i.e., smokes or has tried smoking vs. has never tried)

What were the results? Do the smoking motives of movie characters affect adolescent smoking risk?

Yes. Adolescents who watched scenes portraying movie characters smoking to relax or to facilitate social interaction experienced significant increases in their future smoking risk compared to peers who viewed scenes that portrayed no motive for smoking.

Movie scenes depicting social smoking motives were the most effective at moving middle schoolers with no risk of future smoking toward some level of risk. By contrast, scenes depicting relaxation smoking motives did not seem to affect adolescents who had no future smoking risk; instead, these scenes were the most effective at moving middle schoolers with some level of smoking risk toward a higher level of risk.

These results suggest that multiple exposures to these smoking motives in movies could incrementally change adolescents' attitudes about smoking in a way that eventually compels them to try smoking. This is the first experimental evidence that young adolescents' exposure to motivated smoking in movies causally affects their future smoking risk.

What are the policy and research implications of these new findings?

It may be important for policies and interventions to focus on portrayals of motivated smoking in films, as they may be most likely to influence adolescents' future smoking behavior. Future research in this area should examine the complex network of cognitive, behavioral, and contextual factors that mediate the effect of movie smoking exposure on adolescent smoking.

For more information on this research, please see:

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