Children are impressionable, little sponges who subconsciously absorb their surroundings without understanding them, repeating what they see and hear to practice. Parents know they must watch their own language and behavior “with children” or risk having their bad habits reflected back on them. Teenagers are primed for experimentation and wide open to suggestion without fully grasping the potential consequences of their choices. The teenage years are busy for parents who want to protect their offspring from the most obvious dangers while allowing them to explore the world and begin to find their own path, a grueling combination.
The entertainment industry has always been either inspiring or corrupting for teens, depending on your perspective and the type of entertainment involved. In its heyday, Hollywood was at the center of the entertainment world and is still a formidable player in this arena. The G, PG, PG-13 and R movie rating system was introduced in 1968 to help parents decide which movies are suitable for their children. Violence, profanity, drug use, nudity, and sexual content — all things that might be frightening or suggestive to young minds — are factored in to determine the rating a film receives. Smoking and tobacco consumption were not included.
Arguing that this omission was a mistake and citing extensive research showing a link between screen smoking and teenage smoking, parent groups, public health advocates and even the National Association of State attorneys general have for decades urged the Motion Picture Association to keep movies aimed at young people smoke-free. In 2007, the MPA said it would consider smoking in a film’s rating, but in practice this has been either very loosely enforced or completely ignored. There are even examples of G-rated films that contain smoke, and lighting in PG-13 films is not uncommon. Of this year’s PG-13 Oscar nominated films, “West Side Story,” “King Richard” and “No Time To Die” all feature characters using cigarettes.
So far, Disney is the only production company with a policy of eliminating tobacco imagery from all of its films. For example, in the studio’s 2021 revamp of the original PG-13 Oscar-nominated cartoon “Cruella,” the villain’s ubiquitous cigarette is gone. Other PG-13 smoke-free nominees are “Dune,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “Free Guy,” and “Spiderman: No Way Home.”
More films are now reaching audiences via streaming than through traditional cinemas and are more accessible to young people. A recent Truth Initiative study found that 60% of the top 15 TV and streaming shows for young people in 2020 featured smoking, exposing an estimated 27 million people aged 15-24 to tobacco images. The worst was the popular animated show “Family Guy”. Fox’s other offenders are “The Simpsons” and “Bob’s Burgers”. Netflix remains the streaming platform with the most liberal use of smoking, despite a promise of improvement in 2019. Some Netflix shows, such as “The Umbrella Academy” and “The Queen’s Gambit,” normalize smoking tobacco by showing it in each episode. In fact, only 14% of adults in the United States are smokers (12.8% in New York State).
In recent years, technology has propelled cultural change on many levels, including at the intersection of teens and tobacco. Vaping, the new cool, has replaced smoking as a preference among high school students. Hollywood was defined as the “big screen”; now there are many small screens. Particularly during the pandemic, phones, tablets, and laptops have become a retreat, refuge, and distraction for multitudes. The rise of streaming services and social media platforms has transformed the way many people, including young people, communicate and consume entertainment. What young people see is harder for parents to monitor and way ahead of regulations. Social media influencers with millions of teen followers promote all kinds of products, including tobacco and vaping, on Instagram and other sites, and have become the famous spokespersons for Gen Z. On YouTube, teens perform vaping tricks and compete to see who can consume the most in the least amount of time. The effort to limit the imagery of tobacco is becoming more and more difficult.
There are many different reasons, some of which are interconnected, why the vast majority of people who smoke (or vape) start in adolescence; the influence of the entertainment industry, including social media, is just one of them. Whatever the cause, the earlier you start, the harder it is to quit due to the changes nicotine makes to the developing brain. It’s a hard truth that movies never show and influencers don’t talk about on Instagram.
The Healthcare Consortium is a local charity whose mission is to improve access to healthcare and support the health and well-being of residents of our rural community. The agency is located at 325 Columbia St. in Hudson. For more information, visit www.columbiahealthnet.org or call 518-822-8820.