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They do it in the movies!!! Smoking, teens, and being cool

Contributing co-author: Jamie Felzer

Celebrities get their fair share of flack for inappropriate behavior on screen. Only recently, research regarding the effects of onscreen violence, even in cartoons, making youngsters act more aggressively made some serious noise.

So what about smoking? If kids see their favorite stars smoking cigarettes in films, would they be more inclined to light up as well?

Smoking, movies, and research

A recent study revealed that adolescents in 4th to 9th grade of all backgrounds and ethnicities are in fact more likely to smoke after watching such movies. However, it wasn’t simply watching the movies that increased the likelihood of smoking. The researchers found that if a teen viewed movies where any type of smoking was present their expectancies about smoking became more positive and they were more likely to try it themselves.

Teens see their idolized movie stars looking relaxed and satisfied after smoking so they believe the same effects (physically and emotionally) will happen to them as well. Many movies portray smoking in a social setting, so they assume that with smoking comes the positive social setting. Parents also may not realize that their own smoking effectively promotes the behavior (I’d mentioned this sort of effect with drinking in this post).

Targeting movies for teens

The type of movies that contain many smoking scenes may appeal to youngsters who are already predisposed to smoking; such as those who were older, male, more rebellious, sensation seeking or who had low self-esteem. There were also gender-based differences: females were more likely to begin smoking if their peers did whereas parental smoking status mattered less to females.

The participants were asked to answer the same questions 8 months after the initial interview date. Over time, smoking expectancies became more positive. Whether this had to do with participants aging, peer influence or the viewing of more movies involving smoking scenes is unclear.

One result was cleara higher number of movies with smoking scenes increased the likelihood of teens lighting up because it planted the seed in these young minds that smoking was pleasurable and the it has physical, as well as social benefits. Though the research didn’t look into other behaviors, it wouldn’t surprise me if the same process also affects teens’ likelihood of starting to do other drugs and engage in other negative, and positive, acts.

Maybe it’s time to show the other side of smoking: morning coughing, yellowing teeth, and long, often cold trips to the street.


Wills, Sargent, Stoolmiller, Gibbons, and Gerrard (2008). Movie smoking exposure and smoking onset: A longitudinal study of mediation processes in a representative sample of U.S. adolescents. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 22, 269-277.

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