Finding a teen-oriented movie that features smoking is as easy as visiting the local multiplex.
The coach in this year's remake of "Bad News Bears," played by Billy Bob Thornton, puffs on a cigar around kids. Nearly every major character lit up in last year's Will Ferrell comedy, "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." Tobacco use has appeared in other recent PG-13 films like "Ocean's Twelve" and "Hellboy."
Now pressure is mounting to douse those cigarettes and cigars in movies directly marketed to children. For the first time, antismoking activists can point to a national study - released earlier this month - that links on-screen smoking to tobacco use among teens. The findings suggest that for every 10 teens who try tobacco products, four were influenced by movies.
Armed with the new research, a coalition of children's- and health-advocacy groups and politicians is urging Hollywood to take action.
Variety, the entertainment industry newspaper, recently reported that attorneys general in 32 states signed a letter earlier this month calling for major studios to run antismoking public-service announcements with all DVD and video releases that show people smoking.
On Nov. 7, leaders of the National PTA, the American Medical Association, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, and other organizations ran a full-page ad in Variety demanding an automatic R rating for films that include smoking. The ad proclaims that any delay will lead to "knowing recruitment of multitudes of new young smokers."
Citing the research findings, Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research at the University of California at San Francisco, says filmmakers are "delivering 400,000 kids a year to the tobacco industry, and that's wrong. ... They're abusing their audiences, and their audience's parents, and it's totally unnecessary."
But will moviemakers ever snuff out the smoke? After all, cigarette use has long been linked to Hollywood glamour, harking back to the days when the simple act of sharing a match could turn up the heat in a romantic scene.
Researchers argue that the glamorization of smoking hasn't stopped. Now, advocacy groups report that 77 percent of live-action PG-13 movies from the past six years feature smoking.
For the new study, researchers randomly surveyed more than 6,500 adolescents ages 10 to 14. They report their findings in Pediatrics, a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The teens who watched the most movies that featured smoking were 2.6 times more likely to try smoking than other adolescents, even after researchers adjusted their statistics to account for other possible factors, such as tobacco use by relatives and friends.
The research doesn't definitively confirm a cause-and-effect relationship between movie smoking and teen smoking, said study coauthor James Sargent, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School. Even so, there's still a "strong association."
Filmmakers, still stung by the censorship imposed on movies from the 1930s through the 1960s, haven't rushed to change their ways. While a Directors Guild task force reported in 2003 that "gratuitous on-screen smoking in films and television should be discouraged," the committee added that "foremost, the creative rights of a director must be protected."
The task force also said smoking depictions are "often necessary in regard to establishing historical accuracy and 'life as it is.' " Along those lines, a study released in the medical journal Chest in August reported that fewer than 1 in 4 modern movie characters smoke, about the same percentage as in the US population.
"Personally, I prefer not to live in a sanitized world, thank you," says George Thomas, a movie writer for The Akron Beacon Journal who has written about the smoking issue. Mr. Thomas doubts that movies play much of a role in kids' decisions to smoke, and he says parents, not filmmakers, bear the responsibility of teaching kids to stay away from tobacco.
Thomas, a nonsmoker, also opposes R ratings for movies that depict smoking. Tobacco use "is just part of the culture," he says. "Obviously, that's changing, and there's a stigma associated with it, but it's a part of everyday life."
Antismoking activists argue that they're not calling for censorship or fudging reality. Indeed, they've praised the recent film "Good Night, and Good Luck," about newsman Edward R. Murrow, and its realistic portrayal of a smoke-filled 1950s-era TV newsroom.
In general, however, health advocates frown on depictions of tobacco use, even if the characters who smoke are bad or evil.
In recent years, tobacco use has become a marker for the villainy of movie characters, including the "Cigarette Smoking Man" in the "X-Files" movie and Satan, played by Al Pacino, in "The Devil's Advocate." The study in the journal Chest cast some doubt on Hollywood's glamorization of smoking by reporting that "antagonist" characters are most likely to smoke.
But in many cases, it doesn't matter if a tobacco-using character is malevolent, says Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of American Legacy Foundation, an antismoking advocacy group. Many teens who think about smoking are "rule-breakers and boundary pushers," she says. "The bad guys appeal to them."