New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that declines in tobacco-use incidents in top grossing youth-rated movies (G, PG, PG-13) have stalled, with 26% of youth-rated movies in 2016 depicting tobacco use. 

2012 report from the Surgeon General concluded that the more children and adolescents see smoking on screen the more likely they are to start smoking. For this study, the researchers used data from the ‘Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! (TUTD) project, which used trained monitors to count all tobacco incidents in movies that are among the 10 top-grossing in any calendar week of a given year (the 10 top-grossing movies for at least 1 week have accounted for 96% of U.S. ticket sales). Movie ratings were categorized in line with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

Results showed that although incidents of tobacco use declined in youth-rated movies (from 31% in 2010 to 26% in 2016), in PG-13 movies alone, there was a significant jump of 43% from 2010 to 2016 (from 564 tobacco incidents to 809). Overall, 2016 also represented the highest tobacco-use incidence rate (3,145) since 2007. Since TUTD began collecting movie tobacco data in 1991, the highest year for tobacco incidents was 2005 (3,962). 

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The authors of the CDC report suggest that assigning an R-rating to any movie with tobacco-use imagery could reduce the number of youth smokers (exceptions would be granted to movies of historical portrayal or if the portrayal includes negative effects of tobacco use). Sargent JD, et al. in a longitudinal study, found that providing R ratings to movies with smoking could reduce the number of teen smokers by 18%. 

“Opportunities exist for movie studios to reduce tobacco incidents that appear in youth-related movies, including rating films with smoking R, which would help prevent or delay the initiation of tobacco use among young persons and prevent premature deaths from tobacco-related diseases,” concluded the authors.

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