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Burning issue: Health warnings fall on deaf teenage ears as a generation ignores role models and listens only to its peers

For decades, cigarettes promoted the perfect image of chic and sophistication - an essential social accessory and a vital ingredient of many of the greatest scenes in the cinema.

In the Forties, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis were rarely seen without a cigarette; in the Fifties James Dean proclaimed it a symbol of adolescent rebellion; and later Clint Eastwood presided over murder and mayhem in spaghetti westerns with a cheroot clamped between sneering lips.

Despite the efforts of health campaigners, smoking continues to be portrayed as sexy and stylish in films, on television and in magazines. Witness Sharon Stone, minus her underwear, drawing lingeringly on a cigarette in Basic Instinct. Laura Dern smoked to similar effect in Wild at Heart.

Research has shown that 11- to 15-year-olds perceive a quarter of characters in British soap operas - the Mitchell brothers from EastEnders for example - as smokers, even though some of them are not, and that compared to Australian soaps, our own are seen as pro-smoking.

Ultimately the entertainment industry paid a terrible price for the "glamour" of smoking, with the list of those who died from lung or throat cancer reading like a roll of Hollywood greats: John Wayne, Vincent Price, Yul Brynner, Dean Martin, Gary Cooper, Betty Grable and Bogart.

Ironically Wayne McLaren, the macho rodeo-star-turned-actor who portrayed the Marlboro Man in advertisements for the cigarette brand, also died from lung cancer. He said on his deathbed in 1992 that he was "dying proof that tobacco kills".

In theory the anti-smoking lobby now occupies the high ground in the tobacco debate.But some sections of the population are proving more resistant to giving up smoking than others. According to the Imperial Cancer Research Campaign "the amount of tobacco consumed by women, which decreased in the late 1970's, is going up again."

Children are also proving more difficult to persuade not to smoke, probably because health problems caused by cigarettes seem to be light years away, something suffered only by people who to healthy young people seem impossibly old.

Peer pressure and family background are factors as is a perception among children that smoking is a grown-up thing. A recent survey among 11- to 15-year-olds showed that 29 per cent viewed it as grown up, 11 per cent thought it attractive, 7 per cent described as "cool" and 4 per cent as "tough".

A survey for the Health Education Authority showed that in 10 recent films, 14 leading characters, four of them women and including heroes and villains, lit up on 21 occasions. Researchers were concerned they showed smoking is acceptable if you are feeling mean, stressed or in the mood for sex.