Is "Rango" bad for your kids' health?

By Sharon Tanenbaum

Paramount's new animated film Rango has left many parents - and anti-tobacco advocacy groups - fuming over the portrayal of characters smoking cigarettes and cigars. In fact, there are more than 60 instances of smoking throughout the PG-rated Western,according to Kori Titus, CEO of Breathe California, a Sacramento-based non-profit dedicated to clean air and anti-tobacco programs. rangorango

"While some in the film industry have taken preliminary steps to protect young audiences by making more movies smoke free, Paramount's decision to include smoking in a movie designed for kids is really troubling," said Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, president and CEO of Legacy, the non-profit anti-smoking organization, in a statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

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Paramount spokesperson Virginia Lam says that the movie in no way glamorizes cigarettes: "The images of smoking in the film, which primarily involves the animals, are portrayed by supporting characters and are not intended to be celebrated or emulated." The title character, Rango - voiced by Johnny Depp - is never depicted smoking.


The Dangerous Influence of Smoking in Movies

Should you pass on a family trip to Rango this weekend because of the smoking? Just how risky is smoking on the silver screen for kids? According to a growing body of research, there's clear evidence that children who are exposed to smoking in movies are more likely to take up the habit themselves.

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In one 2009 study in the journal Pediatrics, researchers followed a group of adolescents (who did not smoke at the beginning of the study) for seven years. Teens who viewed the most movies in which characters smoked were twice as likely to become smokers as those who saw the least number of such movies. (The study accounted for such factors as whether kids' parents smoked and personality traits associated with smoking, such as risk-seeking and rebelliousness.)

Alarmingly, about 80 percent of children's exposure to smoking in movies comes from films rated G, PG, or PG-13, a 2008 Dartmouth study found. The authors also noted that exposure during elementary school had as much of an impact on whether a child ultimately became a smoker as exposure closer to when they started smoking. More than 4,000 U.S. kids under age 18 try their first cigarette every day; more than 1,000 become daily smokers, according to the American Cancer Society, and exposure to smoking in movies may be a major factor, according to one anti-smoking group.

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Smoke Free Movies, a non-profit affiliated with the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, says that more children who start smoking are influenced by smoking in movies than by traditional tobacco advertising.

Smoking by any characters in a movie - whether villains or not - can impact impressionable children and teens, research shows. In fact, "bad guy" characters may have a greater impact on teens than good ones.

Should Smoking Be Banned in Movies?

The prevalence of smoking in films has been on the decline for the past six years, with the sharpest dip in 2010, according to new research from Breathe California.

The company's Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! program enlists teens to watch movies and observe the context in which smoking appears. From that research, Titus says the worst G-rated offender prior to Rango was the 1996 live-action film 101 Dalmations. Other than that, she's quick to point out that pervasive smoking in G- and PG-rated films has been virtually nonexistent in recent years. However, many children and teens may view movies rated PG-13 or even R in which smoking appears in varying degrees.

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In 2008, The Motion Picture Association of America, which determines a film's rating, added smoking to the list of factors it considers when rating a movie G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. The organization looks at the pervasiveness of tobacco use, whether it is glamorized, and the context in which the smoking appears. For Rango, it cites "rude humor, language, action and smoking" as reasons for the PG rating. But anti-tobacco groups say that the MPAA isn't taking a firm-enough stance.

"While the incidence of smoking in the movies has declined in recent years, the presence of smoking in a youth-oriented cartoon like Rango underscores the need for Hollywood to take stronger, mandatory action to protect our children. It's time for the Motion Picture Association of America to require an R-rating for movies that depict smoking," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in the AAP statement.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended a ban on tobacco advertising in all media including television and the movies. Of all the major movie studios, only Disney takes an official smoke-free stance; the company banned smoking in its G and PG-rated movies in 2004.

What Parents Can Do About Smoking in Movies

If you're concerned about your child's exposure to smoking in movies, visit online resources independent of the film industry such as Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! or Smoke Free Movies. Both groups evaluate newly released films for the presence of smoking.

If your kids do watch a movie with characters who smoke, turn the opportunity into a teachable moment, recommends Titus. "Discuss how smoking was portrayed in the film and how it's not a healthy choice," says Titus.

For more information, visit the Everyday Health Kids' Health Center.

Photo credit: Paramount Studios

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