Has a cigarette ever saved the the world, stopped a zombie apocalypse, made the best-dressed list, or helped the hero and heroine live happily ever after? No … not ever.
That is why it is cause for concern for Project Truth Initiative and other public health organizations to see tobacco continuing to play a supporting role in movies and on TV. We know that exposure to tobacco imagery can make young people three times more likely to start vaping nicotine themselves, with effects that last long after the credits roll.
Among this year’s Academy Award nominations, a stunning nine of the 10 nominees for Best Picture show tobacco use on-screen, including PG-13-rated films “Elvis,” “The Fabelmans,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” and “Women Talking.” In total, of the 39 nominated films, 28 of them feature tobacco in some fashion. That’s more than 70% of all nominees and five more movies than last year, trending in the wrong direction.
Across the larger entertainment landscape, nearly half (53 of 112) of the top films released in 2021 featured tobacco, according to research conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. And it’s not just in movies. Smoking’s insidious presence is everywhere across popular streaming entertainment, contributing to the rising tide of youth vaping. Truth Initiative’s fifth annual “While You Were Streaming” study of the most popular onscreen entertainment reveals 25 million young people were exposed to tobacco imagery by top streaming shows, as well as 25 million through top box office movies.
The result? Our screens and minds are flooded with images and messages propagating the idea that tobacco use is cool and glamorous – a notion that threatens the decades of progress the U.S. has made in decreasing tobacco use.
As youth vaping persists at alarming levels – over 2.5 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2022, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey – research shows onscreen tobacco imagery is directly contributing to the crisis. Long-established research, including a 2012 Surgeon General report, tells us that smoking in movies makes young people two to three times more likely to start smoking themselves, and peer-reviewed research from Truth Initiative published in 2020 was the first to establish the link between smoking and vaping with episodic streaming entertainment.
While this connection between entertainment and nicotine addiction is clear, the producers and creators behind the content may not realize the downstream effects of what they consider a mere character affectation. There is constant dialogue about movies and plotlines that have aged terribly because of how they portray women, relationships, careers and many other aspects of people’s lives. The treatment of tobacco needs to reflect a similar heightened level of sensitivity and acknowledgment of its harmful effects to both physical and mental health. The entertainment industry yields a powerful influence on our young people, and it should not be wasted.
Accelerated progress is needed to protect young audiences. The entertainment industry should not be complicit with the tobacco industry in normalizing and glamorizing the use of tobacco, ultimately helping addict a new generation of young people to nicotine. Images have impact. Let’s change the picture.
(Pictured: 2022’s “Babylon”)
Robin Koval is president and CEO of Truth Initiative, the nation’s largest non-profit public health organization dedicated to achieving a culture where all youth and young adults reject tobacco.