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Study takes aim at smoking and drinking in animated films


March 18, 1999
Web posted at: 11:11 p.m. EST (0411 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) finds cartoon characters in the most popular feature-length animated films are smoking and drinking to a surprising degree. Sixty-eight percent of the films showed at least one character using tobacco or alcohol.

In conjunction with an American Medical Association seminar Thursday on the media's impact on health behaviors, a study which will appear in the March 24 JAMA was released early.

The study found that tobacco or alcohol was used by at least one character in two-thirds of the animated children's stories done during the past 60 years.

Compiled at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, the study looked at all the G-rated, animated feature films released between 1937 and 1997 by Walt Disney Co., MGM/United Artists, Warner Brothers Studios, Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox. Fifty movies were reviewed in total; three could not be reviewed because they were unavailable on video.

Researchers checked for alcohol or tobacco use in each film and noted the type of alcohol or tobacco being used as well as the length of time it appeared. They also noted if the character was a good or bad character and checked for any implied or explicit health message.

Dr. Adam Goldstein and colleagues found that whether the characters were good or bad had no effect on the depiction of alcohol or tobacco use. Cigars and wine appeared more than other types of tobacco or alcohol.

"Tens of millions of very young children and adolescents are clearly being exposed to a positive portrayal of tobacco and alcohol use in animated films, much as it is portrayed in non-animated films," the researchers wrote. "Because the portrayal of tobacco use in animated films is also correlated with the portrayal of alcohol use, children are clearly seeing positive images of addictive substances that their parents, teachers and society all discourage."

The Walt Disney Co. took exception, saying, "The small amount of these activities shown in our films essentially depict villains or characterize these activities as unwholesome."

Until a future study shows what, if any, effect these images have on children, most public health professionals say the moral of this story is: Parents still need to monitor, as much as they can, what children watch.

Correspondent Mark Scheerer contributed to this report.

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