updated 9/5/2005 4:46:39 PM ET 2005-09-05T20:46:39

Preschoolers pretending to shop for a Barbie doll’s social evening were more likely to choose cigarettes if their parents smoked, and wine or beer if their parents drank, a study found.

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Researchers observing the children’s play found that the ones who watched PG-13 or R-rated movies also were more likely to choose alcohol for Barbie.

A 4-year-old girl chose Barbie-sized tobacco in the pretend store and said: “I need this for my man. A man needs cigarettes.”

A 6-year-old boy offered the doll cigarettes and said: “Honey, have some smokes. Do you like smokes? I like smokes.”

Parents who watched from behind a one-way mirror were surprised by their children’s choices, said study co-author Madeline Dalton of Dartmouth Medical School.

'A very humbling experience'
“It’s a very humbling experience to be a parent and see your children mimic your behaviors,” she said.

The study suggests that prevention efforts should target younger children, Dalton said. It was published Monday in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The study included 120 children, ages 2 to 6. An adult researcher led a standardized play activity in which each child, acting as a Barbie or Ken doll, shopped for a visiting friend. A store stocked with 133 miniature items gave the children choices — including meat, fruit, vegetables, snacks, nonalcoholic drinks, cigarettes, beer and wine.

The children could “buy” anything they wanted by filling a small grocery cart and taking it to a small checkout counter.

Twenty-eight percent of the children bought cigarettes, and 61 percent bought alcohol. The children whose parents smoked were almost four times more likely to buy cigarettes. The children whose parents drank at least monthly were three times more likely to buy alcohol.

Children who watched adult-content movies were five times more likely to buy alcohol, but the researchers did not find a statistically significant link between movie-watching and choosing cigarettes.

'Little learning machines'
The study suggests that parents should be careful about the movies their children watch, said Craig Anderson, who studies media violence at Iowa State University. “Kids are basically little learning machines. Whatever the content is in front of them, they’re going to pick it up,” Anderson said.

The children in the study were mostly white and their parents were mostly college educated. Smoking rates were lower among the parents than in the general population, but alcohol use was fairly high, Dalton said. A random sample would have made the findings more relevant to the general population, she said.

Researchers have recognized for years that young children are aware of cigarette advertising. A 1991 study found that 90 percent of 6-year-olds correctly matched the Joe Camel cartoon character with cigarettes in a researcher-led matching game.

The value of the new study is its emphasis on parents’ behavior, said Dr. Joseph DiFranza of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

“If parents don’t want their kids to be smoking they shouldn’t be setting the example,” he said.

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