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Smoking on Television is Harmful to the Health of the Nation's Youth: BMA

Deirdre Barlow is obviously stressed. Who wouldn’t be with a daughter like Tracey! But is that a good enough reason to show her puffing her way through// a mountain of cigarettes three or four times a week?

Deirdre Anne Barlow (née Hunt, formerly Langton and Rachid) is a long-running character on the ITV soap opera Coronation Street. She has been played by Anne Kirkbride since 1972. Deirdre has become synonymous with a scratchy voice (caused by real-life chain smoking) and very big spectacles.

In 1993, Kirkbride was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma - cancer arising from lymphocytes, a type of white blood cells. It might be better for her health if she didn’t smoke.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in Wales, and the risk of disease increases the earlier in life smoking begins. The prevalence of smoking among Welsh adolescents continues to rise, especially amongst teenage girls.

The percentage of 15 to 16 year old boys in Wales who smoked was 19% higher in 2004 than in 1986. This is also true for girls, with the percentage of 15 to 16 year old girls who smoked 28% higher in 2004 than in 1986.

The fact remains, that unless they stop smoking half of them will die prematurely. Someone who starts smoking aged 15 is three times more likely to die of cancer due to smoking than someone who starts in their late 20s.

Despite bans on television tobacco advertising and moves to raise the legal age of purchasing cigarettes to 18, smoking on television remains widespread.

There is evidence suggesting that television programs depicting tobacco usage may encourage smoking among adolescents. “Although bans have prevented direct tobacco advertising on television there is still widespread portrayal of smoking on television in prime-time programming, movies and music videos.

“In music videos, smokers are typically portrayed as attractive, successful, and influential a nd in a positive social context, often with sexually suggestive content. Rarely is smoking portrayed in an unattractive manner or associated with negative consequences. Television serves as an indirect method of smoking advertising.”

With the ban on smoking in public places now in place in Wales, and the wish by thousands of smokers to kick the habit as a result, children and young adults will see less smoking around them. However, they are still exposed to smoking on TV and are likely to take up the habit as a result. BMA Cymru Wales believes that broadcasters have the responsibility to banish smoking from the screen. “There is no dramatic need to show people smoking. Moods like stress can be portrayed perfectly well without the character puffing out clouds of smoke,” said Dr Lewis.

"The most effective way to address smoking is to do all we can to discourage youngsters from taking up the habit in the first place, and we must do all we can to educate them that tobacco smoke kills and that it’s a stupid idea to take up the habit in the first place. Children are very vulnerable to suggestion, and the less exposure they have to adults smoking, the better.”

“The average smoker will lose about 10 years of life because of smoking. Every day, doctors across Wales witness the devastating effects of smoking on their patients. Many smokers take up the habit at a young age and the majority, by their early 20s, wish they had never started.”

The premise that television instructs and motivates behavior is grounded in social learning theory. According to this theory, people acquire new skills or behavioral scripts primarily through the observation of models. People perform the behavior in response to expected and valued rewards; these can be rewards that they have earned before or observed being given to others ("vicarious reinforcement"). “Television provides adolescents with role models, including movie and television stars who p ortray smoking as a personally and socially rewarding behavior,” added Dr Lewis. Source: BMA

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