Lower-class “bad guys” smoke more often in movies than wealthy movie heroes. But maybe this is just an imitation of life: New evidence shows that the same genes may foster two harmful proclivities–nicotine addiction and aggressively hostile behavior.

Smoking is not more common in movies than in the general US population. Dr. Karan Omidvari says, “Most investigators have concluded that smoking is portrayed as glamorous and positive, but our study shows that the exact opposite is true. Additionally, different studies in the past have subjectively concluded that movies are attempting to influence different groups of minorities to smoke. We have contradicted these findings as well.”

Researchers from New York, San Diego, New Orleans and Stanford, CA recorded the smoking habits of the five leading characters in all top-10 box office movies made after 1990 that portray contemporary life. The movies studied included Armageddon, There’s Something About Mary, As Good As It Gets, Independence Day, and Jerry Maguire.

The results of the study show that the prevalence of smoking in the movies is the same as the prevalence of smoking in US society (between 20 and 25%). Male characters were more likely to smoke than female characters. However, whites were far more likely to smoke than minorities, which does not reflect real life.

“Movies have long been shown to have a significant effect on smoking behavior,” says Dr. D. Robert McCaffree. “R-rated movies, which are the overwhelming majority of the movies made and watched by most people, have a higher prevalence of smoking than movies rated PG and PG-13. Independent movie-makers, who work outside the Hollywood system, are much more callous and ‘guilty’ when it comes to portraying smoking indiscriminately.”

When behavioral geneticists compared the average daily nicotine consumption in mice, they found that genetically altered mice with an alteration to a gene’s DNA sequence consumed significantly more nicotine. Nicotine is a natural insecticide found only in tobacco. Like other insecticides, it is extremely toxic to humans. Nicotine activates a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in the brain’s pleasure system. People with certain gene variations may be able to tolerate more nicotine before they get sick and as a result smoke more in the first place, eventually becoming addicted.

Psychologist Jerry Stitzel says that about half of why a human becomes a smoker is genetically determined; the other half comes from environmental factors. “Common genes likely play a part in why there is such a [strong] link between nicotine and ethanol intake, which in humans means smoking and drinking.”

Psychologist Juergen Hennig says that the type of aggressive behavior we think of as psychopathic or sociopathic has some genetic basis that may involve abnormally low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. The same genes that make a person vulnerable to nicotine and alcohol addiction, play a part in low serotonin levels, which make people more aggressive.

Art credit: http://www.freeimages.co.uk

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