Cigarettes in films.
Jan 20th 2011.
For smokers, the world is an increasingly hostile place. Not allowed into bars and other public spaces, smokers are now to be found as enemies to the people. To add to their misery, each day seems to bring a new study showing how dangerous even a whiff of cigarette smoke can be. Could things get any worse?
Possibly, if smokers were also knocked off their comfortable place within popular culture. For smokers in rich countries have at least been able to rely on films (especially, but not only, classic ones) to portray their habit as somewhat more normal and prevalent than it actually is in the real world. Indeed, Hollywood has long been accused of glamorising smoking, and therefore encouraging people to imitate their on-screen idols.
Research has identified links between smoking in films and the consumption of cigarettes by those leaving a cinema. What prompts such a response is unclear. But it is clearly relevant to those involved in public-health policy. Dylan Wagner and his colleagues at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, therefore decided to investigate the question.
They put 34 people, half of them smokers, into a functional-magnetic-resonance imager.
Participants were asked to watch the first 30 minutes of “Matchstick Men”, a film about con men chosen because it features many smoking scenes but lacks scenes showing the possibly confounding variables of alcohol use, violence and sex.
When smokers viewed a scene that included smoking, they showed greater activity in those parts of the brain involved in perception and in the co-ordination of actions—the areas known to interpret and plan hand movements—as though they, too, were about to light a cigarette. This activity also corresponded to the hand that the volunteer used when smoking. Non-smokers showed no such movement.
The part of the brain affected is the home of what is known as the mirror system. This induces, from mere observation, emotions and sensations similar to those induced by actual experience—for example, fear when a large spider is climbing the leg of an actor in a film. That it might provoke a desire to smoke is thus no surprise.
Scott Heuttel, a neuroscientist at Duke University, in North Carolina, says that this study builds on a growing body of evidence showing that addiction may be reinforced not just by the drugs themselves but by images and other experiences associated with those drugs.