School & District Management

Tobacco Fades From Youth Culture, But Alcohol Holds Strong

By Ross Brenneman — May 31, 2013 3 min read
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In 1998, in the landmark Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and several state governments, tobacco companies agreed not to pay for product placement in various forms of media, including movies, TV, theater, and video games.

A new study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics shows that this policy did indeed significantly diminish the role of tobacco in movies.

That’s good for health advocates who warn about the portrayal of drugs in film, which several studies link to use by children. According to the surgeon general, youth who get the most exposure to onscreen smoking are about twice as likely to begin smoking as those with the least exposure.

There’s more: From 2000-2011, cigarette use by high school students declined by just under 50 percent, and by more than half among middle school students. Yet cigar, hookah, and marijuana use increased over that period.

In the new study, researchers from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center and Dartmouth College combed through the top 100 highest-grossing films from each year between 1996-2009, timing the duration of depictions of alcohol and tobacco, and noting any brand identification. They found a steep dropoff in tobacco use beginning two years after the MSA; films already in production during the settlement account for the delay.

Even as tobacco depiction fell, though, alcohol representation surged in youth-rated movies (G, PG, and PG-13 are all lumped together because attendees don’t need an adult present; the U.S. Surgeon General takes the same approach). On average, the representation of alcohol brands rose steadily, although the results still fluctuate widely year to year: 1999 had just over 60 brand representations, 2000 had about 110, and 2002 was back to about 60, although 2007, 2008, and 2009 all had over 120 depictions.

The Center for Disease Control found that junior and senior high school girls are among the likeliest age group to start binge drinking. That film portrayals of alcohol increased, then, could mean new scrutiny, especially if advocates sense that the film restrictions successfully diminished smoking. Unlike tobacco, no master agreement for alcohol regulations exists, which makes the industry mostly self-regulating outside of minimum-age drinking laws.

The authors of the study doubt that political reality will lead to any legislative changes, and they’re probably right. For one, much of the outrage over tobacco stemmed from an industry that frequently and blatantly hid research about the major hazards of cigarettes. From the MSA’s memorandum of understanding:

Defendants engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to deceive the public about the health risks of smoking and the 'addictive' nature of nicotine, and suppressed the development of 'safer' cigarettes."

The alcohol industry has largely evaded such a level of condemnation, with the exception of infamous caffeinated drinks like Four Loko and Joose.

The study’s authors suggest that the bureaucracy, and the movie industry itself, can offer help where legislators can’t. The most forceful solution asks the Motion Picture Association of America to automatically give an R rating to any movies “that depict drinking in contexts that could increase curiosity or acceptability of unsafe drinking” or which depict underage or excessive drinking.

Retrospectively, this could include, for example, “Iron Man 2,” “Les Miserables,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” (You have to wonder if it would even include “Beauty and the Beast,” when the town gets sloshed with Gaston.*) I can’t see film distributors loving this idea.

And, if a few minutes of alcohol give an otherwise PG movie an R rating, then the end result could be diminishing the weight of that rating altogether, adding burden to a system some already decry as overly cautious.

(The authors didn’t include comparable suggestions for TV.)

OK, OK, that’s a lot of hypothetical. I suspect the researchers’ intention is to make studios just cut out the drinking altogether, which could lead to creative pushback if drinking is part of a historical milieu or a plot point. (Think “The Great Gatsby.”)

So we’ll just have to see whether this study leads to any kind of brewhaha.

*No one goes around corrupting youth like Gaston.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.