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The video game danger parents don’t know about

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Some of the year’s most sought-after video games could be popularizing something many parents don’t expect.

A majority of parents are unaware of smoking in video games, according to "Played: Smoking and Video Games", a new report released today by Truth Initiative®. More than a dozen games released in 2016—at least five of which are rated “Teen”—feature smoking.

Video game content descriptors often fail to mention tobacco use, making it difficult for parents to monitor games for tobacco imagery. In a 2015 University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) survey, researchers verified tobacco content in 42 percent of the video gamesthat participants reported playing; however, only 8 percent of these games had received tobacco warnings from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the gaming industry’s self-regulatory organization that rates video games and apps.

Truth Initiative’s report finds that 93 percent of parents were unaware of the findings of the UCSF study about video games that contain smoking images, and that many targeted teens. When they were made aware, more than 65 percent reported that they would not consciously buy their child or someone else’s child a video game that features characters smoking or includes tobacco content. They also said they would not give their child or someone else’s child money or a gift card to buy a video game that features characters smoking or includes tobacco content.

Research shows a correlation between exposure to smoking imagery and the likelihood to smoke among young people. In fact, 44 percent of adolescents who start smoking do so because of smoking images seen in the movies. Considering teens spend much more time playing video games than going to the movies—an average of 25 times more—the report raises cause for concern and the need for action.

“When it comes to smoking and video games, there are no winners,” said Robin Koval, CEO and President of Truth Initiative. “We need to shine a light on the gaming industry, much like with movies, and all smoking imagery should be removed from video games played by youth. Far too many games feature characters who smoke that are portrayed as strong and powerful, sending a very dangerous message to young people that couldn’t be further from the truth. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death. This report should sound an alarm for parents and be a wakeup call to the industry that tobacco has no place in video games.”

Truth Initiative also commissioned video interviews with 44 teen and young adult “gamers.” All 44 recalled seeing smoking in games on a regular basis. Tobacco use was viewed as making a character “tougher” or “grittier.” The report also reveals that while the majority of teens surveyed say they would play video games despite smoking images, more than 50 percent of these teens expressed concern about the impact smoking images would have on their younger siblings who often watch them play video games to learn themselves.

The depiction of tobacco use in games serves, in effect, as free advertising for tobacco companies, and a recruitment mechanism for the “replacement smokers” they need to make up for the 1,300 people who die each day from a tobacco related disease.

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