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Smoking gun points to ads, movies

Study says depictions of actors lighting up in films and tobacco industry promotions hook smokers early.

August 22, 2008|Julie Steenhuysen | Reuters

CHICAGO -- Tobacco promotions and depictions of smoking in movies cause teenagers to start smoking, according to a sweeping report on tobacco in the media released Thursday.

The report by the National Cancer Institute found that the tobacco industry spent more than $13 billion on smoking-related advertising and promotion in 2005. These efforts boosted overall tobacco use, contradicting industry claims that they are intended to build brand loyalty.

"This is the first government report to present definitive conclusions that, No. 1, tobacco advertising and promotion are causally related to increased tobacco use in the population," said Dr. Ronald Davis, senior scientific editor of the report and past president of the American Medical Assn.

"And No. 2, [it shows] that depictions of smoking in movies is causally related to youth smoking initiation," Davis told a news conference.

The report, which examined more than 1,000 scientific studies on how the media influences tobacco use, comes at a time when efforts to keep young Americans from picking up cigarettes have stalled.

Tobacco use remains the single-largest cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for more than 400,000 premature deaths each year.

Smoking is down from 42% of U.S. adults in 1965 to 21% in 2006. Still, more than 4,000 young people smoke their first cigarette each day, and 1,000 become regular smokers. Nearly 90% of adult smokers began smoking while in their teens.

The report found that even brief exposure to advertising influences adolescent attitudes. Three-quarters or more of hit movies depict cigarette smoking, and specific brands can be identified in about one-third.

Last month, six major movie studios -- Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Co and Warner Bros -- said they would place anti-smoking public-service announcements on DVDs of all movies with youth ratings that depict smoking.

The campaign, brokered by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a nonprofit industry group, does not include youth-rated movies (PG-13 or below) in theaters.

But the report found mass-media campaigns aimed at reducing smoking do work, especially when combined with other tobacco-control strategies. Health experts at the news conference called for much more money for such media efforts.

They said 1969 legislation banning smoking advertising in broadcast media and other curbs have led tobacco companies to shift marketing tactics. Price discount promotions, which accounted for 75% of total tobacco marketing expenditures in 2005, have proved to be highly effective.

"Any promotional technique that lowers the price the kids see when they go to buy a pack of cigarettes is extremely important," Davis said. "Partial advertising bans don't work."

Dr. Janet Collins, who directs chronic disease prevention and health promotion at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, endorsed the report's findings.

"The report speaks clearly to what amounts to an assault on the nation's health," Collins said.

The report comes just ahead of a Senate vote to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight of tobacco regulation. The measure passed the House of Representatives last month.

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