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Movies may influence Mexican American teens' smoking habits

December 4, 2009 |  4:17 pm

Movies can influence our lives -- how we dress, where we live and perhaps whether we smoke. A new study finds that the more Mexican American teens watch movie scenes that include smoking, the more likely they may be to light up.

K4udqenc Researchers surveyed 1,286 Mexican American adolescents -- some born in Mexico, some in the U.S. -- to find out how many smoking scenes they had watched and what were their smoking habits. They discovered a link between experimenting with cigarettes and the films: Numbers of new experimenters ranged from 5% among those who had no or little exposure to movies to 30% for teens who had viewed up to 600 scenes of smoking.

Where the teens were born factored into the results. For those born in Mexico, smoking scenes were the biggest forecaster for experimentation. For those born in the U.S., experimenters increased with the amount of exposure, but leveled off.

There were other correlations: Those with risk-taking tendencies and higher anxiety levels reported more exposure to movie smoking than low risk-takers and those with lower anxiety levels. Also, the more smokers in the house, the more exposure to movie smoking scenes.

"Parents need to limit their adolescents' access to R-rated movies, which research has shown have the most depictions of smoking," said Anna Wilkinson, the study's lead author, in a news release.

Wilkinson, assistant professor in University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center's department of epidemiology, went so far as to suggest that movies with smoking scenes receive an R rating "to reflect their potential harm."

The study appears in this month's issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

-Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times

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Comments (3)

Really? I think parents need to "limit their adolescents' access" to cigarettes more than they do to R-rated movies. I tried smoking when I was a teenager, but it was more out of curiosity than it was because I saw it in movies. It's not like I thought it would make me "look cool" or anything like that. I didn't care for it, and that was the end of it. yuck. LOL!!

I believe the conclusion that smoking in movies can encourage smoking in viewers. A friend once told me that he and a huge number of his cohort of students growing up in Korea took up smoking because Chow Yun Fat smoked in his movies and looked so cool. It seems that things made to appear acceptable, normal, or desirable in media gradually become viewed as acceptable, normal, or desirable in real life, for better or worse. This is only anecdotal evidence, so I don't know how large the effect is, but at least I have direct evidence of causation from witness testimony.

However, as a matter of science, the evidence presented in this post does not prove the conclusion implied in the post. I see no evidence in this post that differentiates between the two main possibilities: 1) Watching movies with smoking causes kids to smoke. 2) Young kids who watch movies in which there is a lot of smoking tend to be the same kids who later experiment with smoking, without the former causing the latter. You bring me a bunch of kids who are so poorly raised that they have watched a large number of age-inappropriate R-rated movies (lots of sex, violence, and incidentally, smoking) before the age of 11-13, and I'll bet you'll find them trying out all kinds of risky behaviors from 13-15 years of age, including things they've never seen in movies. (The study compiled the movie watching history of 11-13 year old kids, and then followed them for two years to see how many tried smoking. Follow the above link to the study abstract.)

To do this experiment right, you'd need a control group of kids who are just as messed up as the experimental group, but who, by pure chance, did not watch movies with smoking. Did they do this? I don't have access to the article so I don't know.

Better yet, they could do an orphanage study in which kids are only allowed to watch movies chosen by management; and half of the kids watch a lot of smoking in movies while the other half watches the same movies but with the smoking edited out. (Of course, such a study is impractical and probably unethical.)

From what I can gather from the post and abstract, it is correct to say that watching smoking in movies is a strong "predictor" (as stated in the linked abstract) of future smoking. But to say that it implies causation is incorrect. Again, I believe that children will imitate what they see adults do, including smoke tobacco. I just take issue with the way that correlation was confused for causation.

Thinking that correlation means causation is the most common data interpretation error made by the public (and all too often, by scientists, especially MDs) in interpreting data. If my point is still not clear, here's an example: Korean kids in LA do really well in school, and Korean kids eat kimchee, therefore, eating kimchee makes you smart. Let's have LAUSD include kimchee in every school lunch. I think that would be awesome, but it wouldn't make kids any smarter. It might reduce teen pregnancy and STDs, though, because kimchee breath kind of keeps people apart. :-)

Is the distinction between correlation and causation important? You bet. One of the most important scientific and policy issues of our time, global warming, hinges on it. Over the last century, there has been a relatively large increase in CO2 and other greenhouse gases. At the same time, it seems that there has been a relatively rapid increase in temperature. Is the increase in greenhouse gases causing the temperature to increase, or is it just correlation, with some other unknown factor driving the increase in temperature? The problem is that we have no separate earth to use as a control experiment, so it is very difficult to know for sure one way or the other. If we decide that it is just correlation and we turn out to be wrong, we could alter the climate, and that could turn out very badly for us. (Or not, but do you really want to take that chance?) If we decide that it is causation and we turn out to be wrong, we could, by wasting untold billions of dollars and holding back economic development in the third world, cause a huge amount of suffering. If you understand the difference between causation and correlation, you at least know where the uncertainty comes from. Then, fully aware of what it is that you don't know, you must to decide how to proceed.

why does it have to be about mexican americans and movies? yes, movies influence mexian americans to smoke.. but they also influence black people to smoke, white people to smoke and anyone else. and its not just the movies... i see more smoking on the streets then i see in movies. movies just add on.


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