Tobacco researchers have attacked "incompetent" film regulators and "insouciant" politicians for failing to act upon evidence suggesting that teenagers are being lured into smoking by seeing it in movies.
The call by the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies for a "complete overhaul" of film regulation to protect young people "from pervasive and highly damaging imagery" has been rejected despite compelling evidence.
"Smoking in films remains a major and persistent driver of smoking uptake among children and young people, which the actions of irresponsible film makers, incompetent regulators and insouciant politicians are abjectly failing to control," wrote Alison Lyons and John Britton from the centre.
Researchers at the University of Bristol found that 15-year-olds most exposed to films in which characters smoked were 73 per cent more likely to have tried a cigarette, and nearly 50 per cent more likely to be a current smoker, than those who watched the fewest films featuring smoking.
The links are even starker when analysed alongside comparable international studies: viewing smoked-filled films more than doubles the risk of a teenager experimenting with cigarettes and increases the risk of current smoking by two-thirds.
This latest research, published in Thorax, has triggered calls for films that feature smoking to be automatically classified as 18 and to be regarded as dangerous as illicit drugs and violence. Stricter regulations over the past decade have limited tobacco advertising on TV, in shops and magazines but this does not extend to smoking imagery in films.
Smoking has played a symbolic role in films: think James Dean in Easy Rider and John Travolta and his T-Birds in Grease. But health experts say most smoking is unnecessary to the plot and characters, yet glamorises a health hazard to impressionable youngsters.
A Department of Culture, Sports and Media spokesman said: "The Government believes the current arrangements provide sufficient control on the depiction of smoking in films and a total ban would be a disproportionate interference. This action would undermine the credibility, and therefore the quality, of domestically produced films."