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Study warns smokers to screen out films featuring cigarettes

Actors who smoke put on a powerful performance – for the smokers in the audience. Just seeing on-screen smoking stimulates a smoker’s brain, firing it up in readiness for smoking, according to US research recently reported in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Researchers Todd Heatherton and Dylan Wagner set out to determine whether or not the habitual hand movements used by smokers about to light a cigarette could be sparked off by seeing someone else smoking. They found that even though it was only in a film, the sight of someone smoking evoked the same brain response as if the smoker in the audience had actually been getting ready to light up.

The test subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching Matchstick Men, a film  prominently featuring smoking scenes.

Smokers trying to quit are frequently advised to avoid other smokers and remove smoking paraphernalia from their homes, but they might not think to avoid a movie with smoking content. Our findings support prior studies that show smokers who exit a movie that had images of smoking are more likely to crave a cigarette, compared with ones who watched a movie without them,” said Mr Wagner.

“This finding builds upon the growing body of evidence that addiction may be reinforced not just by drugs themselves, but by images and other experiences associated with those drugs,” commented Dr Scott Huettel, an expert in the neuroscience of decision-making.