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Play, even without pay, for tobacco

It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's Superman . . . zooming past giant billboards plastered with cigarette brands. Not too long ago, tobacco companies paid big bucks to have their products placed prominently in movies—even those aimed at young audiences, like Superman II. Although the practice of paying for tobacco brand appearances (TBAs) in movies is now banned, tobacco brands still appear regularly in movies, according to a recent DMS study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In 1998, an agreement was signed to settle a lawsuit against tobacco companies by state attorneys general. "One of the purposes of the [agreement] was to limit the amount of advertising that kids were being exposed to," says Anna Adachi-Mejia, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study. One provision of the agreement prohibited tobacco companies from paying to place their products in movies.

Hits: To see what effect that provision has had, Adachi-Mejia and her colleagues examined the top 100 box office hits for the four years before and the four years after the 1998 agreement. They found that the total number of movies with TBAs had indeed decreased—from nearly 21% to under 11%—but that the biggest drop was in R-rated movies. The number of PG-13-rated movies with TBAs had not changed significantly.

"It was surprising and alarming to us that there didn't seem to be a change with the youth-targeted movies," says Adachi-Mejia. The number of R-rated movies with TBAs dropped from about 30% before the agreement to 13% after the agreement. But the slight decrease recorded in the percentage of PG-13 movies with TBAs (from 15% to just under 12%) was not considered statistically significant.

Adachi-Mejia studied PG-13 movies with prominent tobacco brand placements; the Men in Black II alien behind her appears in another scene with a Marlboro carton.

"We know that kids are really affected by what they see," explains Adachi-Mejia. Two of her colleagues—Madeline Dalton, Ph.D., and James Sargent, M.D.—have published studies showing that the more children are exposed to smoking in movies, the more likely they are to begin smoking. Superman will be back on the big screen next summer in Superman Returns. Adachi-Mejia hopes that this time he'll steer clear of tobacco billboards.

Kristen Garner

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