University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Incidents of Smoking Increase Dramatically in Youth-focused, PG-13 Films

Progress in Removing Tobacco Imagery Stalled Six Years Ago, UCSF Study Finds

By Elizabeth Fernandez | | July 6, 2017

Incidents of Smoking Increase Dramatically in Youth-focused, PG-13 Films

Researchers found that from 2010 to 2016 the number of tobacco incidents in top-grossing movies increased by 72 percent.

Youth-rated films, which are designed and marketed as kid-friendly, continue to fill the movie screen with tobacco imagery, according to a new report from UC San Francisco, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other entities.

Nearly half (46 percent) of the films with smoking were youth-rated during the analysis period of 2010 to 2016, reported the authors. This amounted to 210 of the 459 top-grossing films. In PG-13 rated movies, which are classified for teens, the number of incidents of smoking surged from 564 in 2010 to 809 in 2016. The amount of smoking in the few G and PG movies during that timeframe dropped from 30 to 4.

This is a public health concern, the authors said, and could lead more young people to become smokers.


Stan Glantz, PhD
Truth Initiative Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control, UCSF

The report will be released at 1 p.m. EDT on July 6, 2017, in the CDC’s MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report).

“Modernizing Hollywood’s rating system to protect the audience by awarding movies with smoking an R rating would save a million kids’ lives,” said senior author Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, a UCSF professor of medicine and director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. “That is the best way that the six big media companies that control the Motion Picture Association of America could ensure that movies marketed to kids are not also selling cigarettes.”

The U.S. Surgeon General – based on years of published scientific data -- concluded in 2012 that depictions of smoking in the movies cause young people to start smoking. The 2012 report also notes that youth who are heavily exposed to images onscreen of smoking are two to three times as likely to begin smoking as youth who receive little exposure.  

UCSF and the CDC collaborated with Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!, a project of Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, in this study to assess the extent of smoking images in youth-rated movies.

Findings were compared with data from reports dating to 1991, when Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! began systematically collecting data.

The researchers found that from 2010 to 2016:

  • The number of tobacco incidents in top-grossing movies increased by 72 percent (from 1,824 to 3,145);
  • The number of incidents in G or PG movies decreased by 87 percent (from 30 to 4);
  • The number of incidents in PG-13 movies increased by 43 percent (from 564 to 809);
  • The number of incidents in R-rated movies increased by 90 percent (from 1,230 to 2,332);
  • There’s been a more concentrated exposure to smoking images in top-grossing movies.

The report also showed that PG and PG-13 movies from major media companies, whose Hollywood studios govern the movie ratings, accounted for 71 percent of more than 6,000 youth-rated smoking incidents from 2010 to 2016. Sony (17 percent), Fox (15 percent) and Time Warner (13 percent) featured the largest shares of incidents. Disney (7 percent) had the smallest share, followed by Viacom’s Paramount (9 percent). Comcast’s Universal had 13 times more smoking incidents in its 2016 PG-13 films than in 2010 (266 vs. 19). Lower-budget independent film companies accounted for 29 percent of youth-rated smoking incidents over this time period.

In the study, each incident of tobacco use is defined as the use, or implied use, by an actor of a tobacco product, such as cigarettes, cigars, pipes, hookah, smokeless tobacco products and electronic cigarettes. At least two trained monitors counted all tobacco incidents at in-theater movies that were in the 10 top-grossing movies during a calendar week – such movies in the U.S. accounted for 96 percent of U.S. ticket sales. The monitors counted a new smoking incident each time a tobacco product went off screen then returned on screen; a different actor was shown with a tobacco product; or a scene changed, and the new scene contained the use or implied use of tobacco.