“Smoking is hazardous to your health,” and, “children see children do” are examples of warning labels covering 75 per cent of the front and back covers of cigarette packages in Canada. Ironically, it can be argued that smoking has become a part of youth culture in efforts to distress, to be ‘cool,’ and to live in the moment. If people already know the negative consequences of smoking, then why do they still smoke?

“It is the nicotine rush, it helps me think sometimes I just have to because without nicotine it is kind of weird and I want to stop but I can’t because it is too addictive,” says first-year U of T student Alex*.

Earlier this month, the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit (OTRU) published the Youth Exposure to Tobacco in Movies special report, which examined onscreen exposure to tobacco among Ontario youth. The report estimated the impact of this exposure with consideration to new smokers recruited and their tobacco associated mortality and health care costs. “Young people are more likely to [take up] smoking after exposure to onscreen smoking based on analysis of data,” said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the OTRU and associate professor at University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

The report cites that “from 2004 to 2014, more than half (56 per cent) of top-grossing movies in Ontario featured tobacco imagery and 86 per cent of them were youth-rated… adult ratings for movies that depict onscreen tobacco would save at least 30,000 lives and half a billion healthcare dollars… estimates of healthcare costs do not include the costs of drugs and home care, for which data was not available.”

“I believe that youth smoke for various reasons addiction, out of boredom, for physical enhancement [or] peer pressure,” said first-year life-sciences student David Orakpo, “Onscreen exposure to smoking only tells them that others are doing it and it is acceptable in public — thus acting as an inhibitor to quitting as it encourages the practice instead of shunning it,

Schwartz projected that at least 185,000 children and teens in Ontario will start smoking cigarettes due to exposure to onscreen smoking, based on United States Center for Disease Control models, which account for health effects over a lifetime. “Getting people to agree with the finding was one of the challenges that we faced,” said Schwartz, who personally feels the evidence is convincing enough.

“Sometimes young people get encouraged by watching that stuff and they want to smoke too you could probably stop incidents of youth smoking by [proposing a] policy to put a no under 18 restriction on movies with onscreen smoking but it won’t help people that are smoking at the moment,” Jessica, a first-year student commented.

Whether or not an 18A rating for movies with smoking in them is realistic, however, Schwartz urges students to consider the extent to which the benefits would outweigh the costs involved in enforcing such a policy. “Rates of youth smoking has been declining but not as much as we want them or would expect them to,” Schwartz points out, “and I really want to take this time to emphasize that the suggested policy change is not to completely ban the production of movies with on screen smoking, but to place an 18A rating for all movies with smoking.”

*Name changed at the request of the student.