Younger adolescents exposed to movies that depict smoking are at greater risk of smoking than older adolescents, according to a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. While previous studies have shown that exposure to smoking depicted in movies influences adolescent smoking habit, few studies have examined the relationship between exposure to smoking depicted in movies and the acquisition of established smoking behavior.

Whether exposure to smoking depicted in movies carries a greater influence in early or late adolescence remains unknown.

For the current study, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine gathered data from 2,074 public school students in Vermont and New Hampshire who were not established smokers at baseline. The students completed written surveys about their background, movies watched, and their tobacco use in 1999 at ages 9 to 14 years (early exposure), and follow-up telephone interviews in 2006-2007 at ages 16 to 22 years (late exposure). Movie data was stratified according to ratings and assessed for smoking episodes.

The researchers found that established smoking behavior increased with the number of smoking episodes watched, with students aged 9 to14 years at a 73% higher risk of becoming established smokers compared to their peers who watched fewer smoking episodes. Students aged 16 to 22 years were not at a statistically significantly greater risk than their peers who saw fewer smoking episodes. "These results indicate that early exposure to smoking depicted in movies is associated with established smoking in adolescents, whereas late exposure is not," the researchers wrote.

The researchers noted the limitations of the study, namely that it focused on a very specific demographic—white students from northern New England public schools. They also did not look at data from students younger than the early cohort who were exposed to movie smoking; but they do note that a previous study showed movie-related childhood exposures to be just as influential as those occurring closer to the age of initiation. Still, the researchers concluded their findings should inform smoking prevention efforts. "These findings suggest that prevention efforts should focus on the reduction of exposure to smoking depicted in movies when children are at a young age."

Source: Journal of the National Cancer Institute