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Films the next tobacco frontier

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The World Health Organisation has called for a ratings system for films that show people smoking amid warnings that screen portrayals are luring millions of young people into the deadly habit.

While a major review has found evidence that smoking bans have delivered significant health benefits for non-smokers, the WHO is urging governments to do more to deter adolescents from trying tobacco.

Though the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which came into effect in 2005, binds signatories to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, The Lancet said earlier this month that that films and television shows remain a potent way circumventing such restrictions by exposing young people to images of smoking.

Hollywood is yet to kick the tobacco habit – 44 per cent of all films it made in 2014 portrayed smoking, including 36 per cent of films rated suitable for young people.

The Lancet cited calculations by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that seeing on-screen smoking would encourage more than 6 million youngsters to take up the habit in 2014 alone.

Though smoking rates among young people in Australia are low by international standards – just 3 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds smoke, rising to 10 per cent of 16- to 17-year-olds – the WHO’s call is seen as a way to further undermine the appeal of tobacco among young people, which was a major goal of the country’s world-leading plain package legislation.

This comes against the backdrop of the rise of e-cigarettes and concerns they provide a pathway to smoking for young people.

A US study of young people who had never smoked traditional cigarettes found that almost 70 per cent who used e-cigarettes progressed to traditional smokes, compared with 19 per cent of those who had not.

Of some comfort in this regard are figures showing sales growth of e-cigarettes is slowing.

After expanding at a triple-digit pace in the past five years, sales growth in the US is expected to slow to 57 per cent this year and 34 per cent in 2017.

The latest evidence for the success of tobacco control measures has come from a group of Irish researchers who investigated the effect of smoking bans on health.

The study, published by the Cochrane Library, identified 33 observational studies showing evidence of a significant reduction in heart disease following the introduction of smoke-free workplaces and other public spaces.

The researchers found the greatest reduction in admissions for heart disease following the introduction of smoking bans was for non-smokers.

Adrian Rollins