Video games with smoking characters lack tobacco warnings

Fri Sep 25, 2015 4:03pm EDT
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By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) - Video games popular with children and teens often feature characters that smoke even though few packages carry warnings about tobacco-related content, a U.S. study suggests.

Researchers asked 65 players, ages 13 to 50, to list their favorite games and recall how many of these depicted tobacco use. Participants remembered playing 118 different games that are evaluated by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), an industry group in the U.S. that provides voluntary content warnings designed to flag themes that may not be appropriate for younger players.

Players recalled seeing tobacco featured in 31 percent of the ESRB-rated games, but only 8 percent of games carried tobacco content warnings.

Gamers also observed smoking more often than they realized. Researchers assessed the games themselves and found 42 percent contained tobacco imagery.

“We were surprised at the amount of tobacco imagery in video games,” said study co-author Susan Forsyth. “The connection between viewing smoking imagery and adolescent smoking uptake has been well established by numerous studies, yet tobacco imagery in video games seems to be flying under the radar.”

Most smokers try tobacco for the first time before they reach adulthood, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each day in the U.S. alone, more than 3,800 youth 18 and younger smoke their first cigarette, the CDC says.

While many factors can influence whether children and teens reach for that first cigarette – including whether their parents or close friends smoke – video games and other mass media depicting tobacco in a favorable light can make the habit seem acceptable, if not desirable.

Forsyth and co-author Ruth Malone in the nursing school at the University of California, San Francisco set out to assess whether tobacco imagery was clearly labeled on packaging parents might review to determine whether a particular game might be appropriate for their child.   Continued...

A man plays a computer game at an internet cafe in Beijing May 9, 2014.  REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon