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Interpretations of smoking in film by older teenagers


  • McCool, Judith P.
  • Cameron, Linda D.
  • Petrie, Keith J.


Research testifies that images of tobacco use in popular films are highly pervasive and typically glamorised. There are concerns that these images may promote motivations to smoke in adolescents, but little is known about how these images are interpreted by members of this age group. A qualitative study was conducted to explore how older teenagers interpret and decode smoking imagery in film. This study builds on earlier work with a younger age group (12 and 13 years) to explore how various interpretations of smoking imagery shape and support common understandings about smoking among older teenagers. Data were collected through focus groups. Eighty-eight 16 and 17 year old students were interviewed at school. Participants discussed their recollections of and responses to recently viewed films. Older teens were receptive to smoking imagery when it was used in a credible manner to portray an emotional state, sub-culture affiliation, and lifestyle. Experience as a smoker appeared to inflate the credibility of realistic smoking images, particularly those presented in gritty realism/drama film. Older teens perceived realistic images, as opposed to stereotypical images, as a salient reference to their own lives. Stereotypical images were also readily recalled and appeared to perform an important role in supporting misconceptions about smoking and contributing to popular ideologies about tobacco use. Stereotypical images presented in comedy and action genre also serve to present paradoxical and contradictory messages about tobacco use. In particular, participants recalled tobacco use in film as associated with stress and anxiety, drug use, and seduction. Film images of tobacco use in specific contexts appear to hold specific and significant meanings for older teens. Realistic images offered salient representations of the perceived reality of smoking for this group. Pervasive and credible smoking scenes in film may offer support and reassurance to older teens who currently smoke or hold ambivalent views about smoking. Consistent with younger adolescents, older teens presented a predominantly nonchalant response to smoking imagery in film, which is a powerful indicator of the pervasiveness and acceptability of smoking in general. In contrast with younger adolescent, older teens tend to draw upon their own experience with tobacco use when interpreting smoking images in film.

Suggested Citation

  • McCool, Judith P. & Cameron, Linda D. & Petrie, Keith J., 2003. "Interpretations of smoking in film by older teenagers," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 56(5), pages 1023-1032, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:56:y:2003:i:5:p:1023-1032

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    Cited by:

    1. Charlesworth, Annemarie MA. & Glantz, Stanton A. Ph.D., 2006. "Tobacco and the Movie Industry," University of California at San Francisco, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education qt2qz385f8, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, UC San Francisco.
    2. Davey, Gareth & Zhao, Xiang, 2012. "‘A real man smells of tobacco smoke’—Chinese youth's interpretation of smoking imagery in film," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 74(10), pages 1552-1559.
    3. McCool, Judith & Webb, Lisa & Cameron, Linda D. & Hoek, Janet, 2012. "Graphic warning labels on plain cigarette packs: Will they make a difference to adolescents?," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 74(8), pages 1269-1273.


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