Young people tend to identify strongly with actors, especially actors of their own nationality. So what do they think when they see their idol lighting up a cigarette? A recent study conducted by researchers from the United States, Mexico, Argentina, and Germany has found that while Hollywood has fixed its problem with romanticizing tobacco use, films made outside of the United States continue to show characters smoking on screen.

"Our study found that the presence of tobacco and alcohol in films is high, whether the film is made in Europe or the Americas," said Dr. James Thrasher, senior researcher for the study from the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health, in a statement. "Even in countries where tobacco industry payment for product placement is prohibited by law, more than half of films contain tobacco — countries without these policies were even more likely to show tobacco use on screen."

Thrasher and his colleagues compared 502 films produced in the U.S. and 337 films produced in six European countries and two Latin American countries. Films were produced between 2004 and 2009 and were considered commercially successful based on their box office earnings. Researchers not only analyzed if characters smoked or drank alcohol, but also gauged the amount of time these activities were shown for.

Films from Iceland featured the highest percentage of tobacco use while films from the Netherlands featured the lowest percentage. Although most countries showed more characters smoking than the U.S., films from Argentina were the only ones that featured smoking on screen for longer period of time than the U.S. Between 75 percent and 97 percent of films featured characters drinking alcohol with no discernable difference between the U.S. and other countries.

"No country we studied has implemented policies to reduce alcohol use in films, and alcohol use is universally high across all films." Thrasher added. "Films are powerful vehicles for influencing behaviors. As recommended by the World Health Organization, governments seeking to reduce adolescent smoking should consider no longer funding national films that portray tobacco use."

Although the U.S. banned tobacco product placement in films back in 1997, most countries have yet to allow such legislation. This is problematic, since a number of studies have shown smoking in movies directly influences the children who are watching them. Thrasher and his research team recommend other countries start by prohibiting tobacco use in films that are subsidized by that country’s government.

Source: Barrientos I, Kollath-Cattano C, Thrasher J, et al. Comparison of tobacco and alcohol use in films produced in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. BMC Public Health. 2015.