How Video Games Can Get Kids Hooked On Smoking

By May Wilkerson 01/14/16

Images of cigarettes and tobacco use in video games are more common than you might think.


Images of cigarettes and tobacco use in video games are more common than you might think. As of last year, about 42% of video games featured characters smoking cigarettes, cigars, or e-cigs or referenced tobacco products, according to a study published in September. Experts say these images could be encouraging kids and teens to pick up the lethal habit.

Teenagers aged 12 to 17 who see the most smoking in movies are about twice as likely to start smoking as those with the least exposure, according to a U.S. Surgeon General's report. But though there has been little research into the impact of smoking in video games, they may have an even stronger influence than movies, said Robin Koval, chief executive officer and president of Truth Initiative, a tobacco-control advocacy organization in Washington. "We know video games are much more immersive (than movies) and frequently played by young people,” she said. “Those who play games spend even more time playing them than (time spent) on social media.”

To make matters worse, characters who smoke in video games are often portrayed as “the cool characters, the more powerful characters,” said Koval. According to a survey by Truth Initiative, young people ages 15 to 21 said characters who smoke are seen as "bad ass" and "look more in charge." This is somewhat surprising given that smoking seems to be going out of style among young people. In 2014, 13% of high school students and 3% of middle school students reported smoking, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was a record low.

But while smoking is losing popularity among young people, a 2012 study found that the number of video games with characters who smoke or references to tobacco had increased from under 1% in 2005 to over 12% in 2011.

That number shot up around 2005, which is the same time smoking became less common in American movies, when the tobacco industry was banned from paying for product placement. It’s not known whether tobacco companies can pay video game designers for product placement, but it’s not unlikely according to James Thrasher, associate professor in the Arnold School of Public Health at University of South Carolina who led the 2012 study. “There would be lots of ways for the tobacco industry or representatives to muck around or pay off for product placement in video games just because the [gaming] industry is more flexible and dynamic than the film industry," he said, adding that new video games come out way more often than new movies.

It’s also difficult for parents to know which games contain references to smoking, because the games are often not honestly rated. Koval urges parents to monitor the games their kids are playing for signs of tobacco-related content. "One of the things that's always true is that if you raise awareness with young people as to the fact that you're being influenced by others, that's just the first step (because) young people do not like being manipulated," she said. "There's an opportunity for parents and the gaming community itself to make it known that these games are tons of fun to play without having to include smoking in them.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.