“And the winner is…” the tobacco industry? Yes, according to Truth Initiative, the national public health organization who has been finding clever ways to discourage teens from smoking in 2000. According to them, of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture this year, 80% include tobacco depictions which research shows leads to youth smoking and vaping. These include Don’t Look Up, CODA, Drive My Car, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog and West Side Story. Of all the feature film nominees across categories, 61% depicted tobacco use, including the The Lost Daughter, No Time to Die and House of Gucci.
One could argue that depicting smoking of vaping on screen is not the same as encouraging its behavior, but Truth Initiative says that all of this exposure is starting to present not only a re-normalization of smoking or tobacco use, but also a glamorization of it.
“Well established research shows exposure to smoking in movies causes young people to start using tobacco, a conclusion reached almost a decade ago in a 2012 Surgeon General report,” states a press release for Truth Initiative. “A more recent landmark study published in Preventive Medicine, found that exposure to on-screen smoking imagery can triple a young person’s odds of starting to vape nicotine…According to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, more than two million high school and middle school students used e-cigarettes. Of the high schoolers who vaped, 43% did so almost daily, signaling signs of nicotine addiction.”
This make sense since the younger a person begins tobacco use regularly, the harder it will become for them to kick the habit when they are older and know better.
What has made Truth Initiative stand out among other organizations shouting “Don’t Smoke!”, Truth Initiative makes their campaigns “cool” and relevant to teens. Sometimes they use humor and other times they hit the subject hard. But it’s more than just fun and games.
Truth Initiative monitors tobacco imagery across the most popular streaming and broadcast shows among 15- to 24-year-olds through its annual While You Were Streaming report. As new movie releases were increasingly streamed at home, the fourth edition of the report, While You Were Streaming: Nicotine on Demand, released earlier this year included movies for the first time. More than a third (38%) of top grossing movies in 2020 depicted tobacco with nearly 1,000 incidents, according to an analysis by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago included in the report. These include 10 movies that are youth-rated, such as Amazon’s PG-rated The Personal History of David Copperfield and Wonder Woman 1984. Beyond tobacco depictions in PG movies, many of the top offenders included movies that appeal to youth, such as 2021 Oscar-winner Promising Young Woman.
“While some progress has been made from studios like Warner Bros. and Disney for keeping tobacco imagery out of iconic films like Cruella and The Batman, inconsistencies remain,” says Truth Initiative. (It is sort of ironic that the classic Disney villain is not shown smoking since her animated counterpart has been smoking for year and Glenn Close did they same when she played the part years later.)
Truth Initiative are calling on the entertainment industry to take actions to protect their young viewers, including:
- States can change their film production subsidy policies to provide tax and other incentives for productions that do not promote tobacco use.
- Call on directors, writers and producers to keep tobacco imagery out of their shows.
- Educate parents about the impact on their children seeing tobacco use onscreen.
- Conduct additional research on the harmful effects of tobacco imagery in video entertainment across all channels including broadcast, cable, streaming and web-based platforms.
- Ensure advertising dollars don’t target youth with addictive products and making tobacco companies prove they have not paid for product placement in media popular among youth.
To read the full While You Were Streaming: Nicotine on Demand report and to learn more about the actions needed to address tobacco in pop culture visit truthinitiative.org.
(Main Image: Jo-B Pixabay)
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.