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Arnold School of Public Health

Thrasher publishes study on tobacco/alcohol portrayals in films, tobacco reduction recommendations included in new WHO report for reducing use among youth

November 24, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, 

Arnold School Associate Professor Jim Thrasher and an international group of co-authors have just published the largest global study of tobacco and alcohol use in nationally-produced films from nine countries across Europe and the Americas. The study, published in BMC Public Health, found a high presence of both tobacco and alcohol in films. This was true across locations where the films were produced and even in countries with policies prohibiting tobacco industry payment for product placement - where more than half of the films contained tobacco despite these regulations.

"Still, countries without these policies were even more likely to include tobacco," says Thrasher. "And further, no country we studied had implemented policies to reduce alcohol use in films, and alcohol use is universally high across all films."

The team expected that most films would include tobacco and alcohol, but they were surprised by the fact that these portrayals occurred at similarly high percentages across countries with very different cultural and economic backgrounds. The primary difference in the percentage of tobacco portrayals across countries was that U.S.-produced films were less likely to contain tobacco. "This is likely due to policies prohibiting the tobacco industry from paying film producers to include tobacco in films, as well as to grass roots advocacy efforts to reduce tobacco use in films," explains Thrasher.

Hollywood movies often saturate film markets in many countries, so this is good news on a global scale. Yet despite this step in the right direction for films produced in the U.S., further reductions would impact youth smoking because U.S. films are so popular. Also, locally-produced films may still have a significant effect on youth in the countries where they are made. "This is because movies may have a larger impact when youth perceive the movie characters as sharing the same cultural background as themselves," says Thrasher.

Another surprising finding from the study was related to ratings. "We learned that films that get rated for youth do not seem to have fewer tobacco or alcohol portrayals," Thrasher says. "This suggests that neither tobacco nor alcohol portrayals significantly influence how films are rated."

Based on these findings, the researchers advocate policies that monitor and reduce the presence of tobacco and alcohol in films. This oversight will help inform policy strategies to regulate portrayals of dangerous substance use in films in order to help reduce usage among adolescents.

In particular, the authors suggest that governments disallow public funding, which most national film industries rely on, for films that include portrayals of tobacco. They also believe that payment from industry for tobacco or alcohol product placements should be prohibited. Finally, they recommend that ratings systems should consider tobacco and alcohol content in their rating process so that youth-rated films do not include tobacco or alcohol except when doing so is historically accurate.

"These and other policies are recommended in a new report by the World Health Organization to reduce tobacco use amongst youth," says Thrasher. "Given the substantial negative impact of alcohol use on public health, similar policies should be considered for alcohol."