Are Underage Smokers Influenced Most by Movies?

Cigarette companies are not allowed to market directly to the youth of America. The companies are also banned from advertising on television, radio and in newspapers.

The only mainstream advertising they can pay for is in magazines catered toward adults. Somehow, though, four million underage Americans smoke, begging the question: what influences their decision to smoke?

It's a question without a definite answer. Do images in movies influence kids? How about all the stars in Hollywood smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee to curb hunger and keep the weight off? Perhaps, it's the old fashioned peer influence route.

"It's addictive, it's incredibly addictive and I need a couple a day, I just have to have them," Matt Critchlow told CNBC for the upcoming documentary Cigarette Wars.

"I think movie directors who put smoking in their films are either corrupt or stupid," -Professor, University of San Francisco Medical School, Dr. Stanton Glantz

Critchlow, now a 21-year-old college student, began smoking when he was 15 years old. He says, cool people in school got him started, but the "cool" people in the film industry helped, too.

"Whenever you see someone smoke on the screen, they look cool doing it," he said. "It's just a little bit rebellious, and even if they aren't rebelling against anyone, it's just badass."

Dr. Stanton Glantz thinks it's just plain bad. He's a professor at the University of San Francisco Medical School and is a leading opponent of the multi-national tobacco companies. He runs a group called "Smoke-Free Movies," and his goal is to get an "R" rating for any movie that features a smoker.

Humphrey Bogart smoking in a cafe in a scene from "The Barefoot Contessa."
John Kobal Foundation | Getty Images
Humphrey Bogart smoking in a cafe in a scene from "The Barefoot Contessa."

"There's a tremendous body of scientific evidence from all over the world that shows the more kids see people smoking on screen, the more likely they are to smoke," Glantz said.

He said he thinks the history of smoking on film is so entrenched in Hollywood's DNA that it doesn't matter whether or not the companies pay for placement in 2011. It's been a part of the cinema since the beginning, and contemporary directors and producers continue to use it as a dramatic device.

"I think movie directors who put smoking in their films are either corrupt or stupid," he said. "If they're putting smoking in the films in a way where they're giving away, you know, millions and millions of dollars worth of free promotion to the tobacco companies and delivering kids to big tobacco, and they're not getting paid for it, then they're stupid."

The Motion Picture Association of America has been proactive, even if it hasn't gone as far as Glantz wants them to go. In 2007, the MPAA decided to consider smoking, along with violence and sexual situations, when rating a film.


If there's excessive smoking, it can make a PG film PG-13.

Even with the current rules, there are controversial decisions all the time. For the current Johnny Depp animated feature "Rango" it has smoking in it, yet retained a PG rating.

None of the major U.S.-based tobacco companies agreed to an interview, but three of the four provided written responses to a series of questions. They adamantly denied paying for any product placement, and also chimed in on the youth marketing debate.

"Any assertion that we market to minors is completely unfounded," said Reynolds American, which produces Camel, Winston and Salem cigarettes. "It is a guiding principle of the company that minors should never use tobacco products."

No matter where the answer lies, some statistics don't lie. And according to a government study, 90 percent of smokers try their first cigarette before age 20, and 80 percent before they are 18 years old.