U.S. lawmakers are warning the American film industry to reduce the amount of smoking in movies. They are concerned about studies showing that children are more likely to smoke if they see it in the cinema, but Hollywood is resisting the pressure in the name of free speech.

The U.S. government's disease tracking agency, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), says about two-thirds of today's films depict tobacco use, including those intended for young audiences. The agency also says 4400 American teenagers begin smoking each day. Dartmouth University pediatrician Madeline Dalton sees a link between these statistics. In a study last year of 2600 youths aged 10 to 14, she found that movie portrayals of tobacco use are a major reason why children smoke.

?The data indicated that half the adolescents who initiated smoking in this study did so because of viewing smoking in movies,? she noted. ?These results confirm prior research by providing strong evidence that viewing smoking in movies promotes smoking initiation among adolescents.?

Dr. Dalton delivered this data to a U.S. Senate committee recently on the day after the United States became the 108th country to sign the World Health Organization's (WHO)international smoking control treaty.

Among the treaty's many anti-smoking provisions is one calling for nations to ban tobacco promotion in their mass media. The United States prohibited tobacco advertising on radio and television 24 years ago, but actors still freely inhale cigarettes in American movie and television productions, a form of promotion.

Senators from both major U.S. political parties are insisting the motion picture industry do something about this to help prevent children from becoming tobacco-addicted adults. Like several committee members, Republican John Ensign said that he prefers voluntary efforts over legislation.

?We want producers, directors to think before they just instinctively put a cigarette in an actor's hand, 'What effect is that going to have on children?'? he said. ?'Do I want to be responsible for addicting a kid?'?

Hollywood is on guard, judging from the strong reaction by film industry representatives. The head of the U.S. movie trade association, Jack Valenti, asserted Hollywood's constitutional right to free speech and told lawmakers, in essence, to back off. ?Under the canopy of constitutional privileges, I do not believe it is the obligation of the Congress to intervene in something like this,? he stated.

Movie director LeVar Burton said the professional guild he heads has adopted a resolution urging directors to be socially responsible about smoking scenes in movies, but he insisted that they need creative freedom to depict smoking if a script calls for it.

?Smoking can be an important signal that reveals or underscores the emotional or mental state of a character,? he explained. ?Portraying smoking on the screen might be necessary in establishing historical accuracy, be it in the battlefield, in a bar or on a college campus in the 1950s.?

However, Senator Ensign said that freedom comes with responsibility and urged the film industry to adopt a voluntary movie rating system that alerts viewers to smoking content. U.S. movies are already rated based on nudity, sexual activity, obscene language and violence. Jack Valenti rejected this limited measure, arguing that it would invite people pushing other social causes to demand special movie ratings and complicate the system.

Senator Ensign sounded incredulous at the hearing.

?Why is it okay to modify it for nudity, for language, but it's not okay to modify it for tobacco, the number one preventable, easily preventable, health problem we have in this country he asked. ?Cussing in movies never killed anyone. Tobacco does.?

Although the Senate hearing yielded no agreement, Democratic Party member Ron Wyden warned Hollywood that if it does not voluntarily reduce children's exposure to smoking in movie scenes, the U.S. Congress would act to do so.

?The ball is in the industry's court and we have got to see progress,? Mr. Wyden said.