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Lighting up the dark: smoking in movies

August 19, 2010 |  3:03 pm

Remember Me-A It's no secret that "Avatar" was the highest-grossing movie last year, helping Hollywood to rake in piles of cash. But James Cameron's 3D epic also had a more negative effect, according to a new study: It was one of five youth-rated movies that carried the most smoking impressions in 2009.

What does that mean, exactly?

"A smoking impression is when someone in a movie is smoking or using packaged cigarettes. So if you have a scene where one person was smoking and you show that once — that's one impression," explained Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and a lead author of the report "Smoking in Top Grossing Movies — United States, 1991-2009," released Thursday.

Translation: Though the PG-13-rated "Avatar" may not have had that many scenes including smoking,  it had a whopping 951 million smoking impressions because so many people saw the film. Conversely, a movie with more smoking scenes that made less money — such as Tyler Perry's "I Can Do Bad All By Myself," also rated PG-13 — had 723 million tobacco impressions.

Still, that's not to say the report had only negative findings. Yes, more than half of the PG-13 films released last year included images of tobacco. But total tobacco impressions fell from between 30 billion and 60 billion per year from 1991 to 2001 to 17 billion in 2009.

What's most important about the new report, said Glantz, is that it has prompted the government to weigh in on the debate over smoking in movies.

After the new information was released, some members of Congress urged the Motion Picture Assn. of America to reevaluate the way smoking is depicted on screen.

"It's time for the movie industry to accept its own version of a nicotine patch by embracing a policy that will help them kick the habit of including images of smoking in movies targeting youth," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

In case you're curious, "Sherlock Holmes" was the PG-13-rated film that had smoking impressions last year, with 1.58 billion. The other movies filling out the youth-rated Top 5 are "Julie and Julia" (1.041 billion) and "Nine" (540 million). Interestingly, all three films are rooted largely in past decades (or even past centuries).

— Amy Kaufman


Photo: Robert Pattinson smokes a cigarette in "Remember Me." Credit: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down.

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