Background: Social cognitive theory posits that children develop intentions and positive expectations (utilities) about smoking prior to initiation. These attitudes and values result, in part, from observing others modeling the behavior. This study examines, for the first time, the association between viewing tobacco use in movies and attitudes toward smoking among children who have never smoked a cigarette.
Design/setting: Cross-sectional school-based survey was used among randomly selected Vermont and New Hampshire middle schools. The sample consisted of 3766 middle school students (grades 5-8). The sample was primarily white and equally distributed by gender. The primary exposure was number of movie tobacco-use occurrences viewed. We first counted occurrences of tobacco use in each of 601 recent popular motion pictures. Each student was asked to select movies they had seen from a random subset of 50 movies. Based on movies the adolescent had seen, movie tobacco-use occurrences were summed to determine exposure . The outcome was susceptibility to smoking, positive expectations, and perceptions of smoking as normative behavior for adolescents or adults.
Results: The movies in this sample contained a median of five occurrences of tobacco use (interquartile range=1, 12). The typical adolescent never-smoker had viewed 15 of the 50 movies on his/her list. From movies adolescents reported seeing, exposure to movie tobacco-use occurrences varied widely: median=80, and interquartile range 44 to 136. The prevalence of susceptibility to smoking increased with higher categories of exposure: 16% among students who viewed 0 to 50 movie tobacco occurrences; 21% (51 to 100); 28% (101 to 150); and 36% (>150). The association remained statistically significant after controlling for gender, grade in school, school performance, school, friend, sibling and parent smoking, sensation-seeking, rebelliousness, and self-esteem. Compared with adolescents exposed to < or =50 occurrences of tobacco use, the adjusted odds ratio of susceptibility to smoking for each higher category was 1.2 (95% confidence interval 0.9, 1.5), 1.4 (1.1, 1.9), and 1.6 (1.3, 2.1), respectively. Similarly, higher exposure to tobacco use in movies significantly increased the number of positive expectations endorsed by the adolescent and the perception that most adults smoke, but not the perception that most peers smoke.
Conclusions: This study provides empirical evidence that viewing movie depictions of tobacco use is associated with higher receptivity to smoking prior to trying the behavior.