Blowing Smoke: Can Media Literacy Impact Youth Smoking?

This report first appeared in Telemedium, Summer 2001. It is posted here with permission of the author.

Arizona Demonstration project yields important research findings.

Have you noticed lately, the increased number of movie characters lighting up on screen? Even though cigarette advertising on television has long ago been prohibited, and the Surgeon General's warnings about the dangers of tobacco use are clearly to be seen everywhere from billboards to posters and on cigarette packs, there is still lots of smoking in movies, especially those popular with youth. It follows that efforts to discourage young people from smoking have recently begun to focus on these films and on their influence on youth.

Hollywood Can't Kick the Habit
Tobacco use in youth-oriented movies increased in the 1990's and is prevalent today especially in movies popular with youth. A 1999 Office of National Drug Control Policy study of the 200 most popular video rentals in 1996 and 1997 revealed that 89 percent had smoking in them. (3) Another study, at Dartmouth Medical School showed this percentage varied between 88 percent and 92 percent in the top 25 box-office films since 1995. (5)

Since it has been found that perceived social norms and modeling by admired others are important predictors of alcohol and drug use (4) it is particularly disturbing that 74 percent of the lead characters in the top 50 movies from 1997 to 1998 used tobacco. (1)

The Media Literacy-Prevention Link
To help youth recognize and analyze the media messages that normalize and glamorize tobacco use, prevention efforts have begun to incorporate media literacy in the armamentarium of prevention strategies. For example, in the introduction to a special 1998 supplement of the Weekly Reader, on "Media Literacy as a Substance Abuse Prevention Strategy," former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala stated, "Media literacy

    • American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails. (1999) Teens Look at Tobacco Use in the Top 50 Movies of Each Year from 1991-1998. Sacramento, CA: American Lung Association.

    • Austin, E.W. and Johnson, K.K. (1997) Effects of the general and alcohol-specific media literacy training on children's decision making. Journal of Health Communication. Jan-Mar, 2:1,17-43.

    • Office of National Drug Control Policy and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999) Substance Abuse in Popular Movies and Music. Washington, DC: USDHHS.

    • Oostveen, T., Knibbe, R., & DeVries, H. (1996). Social influences on young adults' alcohol consumption: Norms, modeling, pressure, socializing, and conformity. Addictive Behaviors, 21 (2) 187-197.

    • Sargent, J.D., Tickle, J.J., Beach, M.L., Dalton, M.A., Ahrens, M.B., Heatherton, T.F. (2001). Brand appearances in contemporary cinema films and contribution to global marketing of cigarettes. The Lancet, 357 (9249).

    • Weekly Reader Corporation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1998) Media Literacy as a Substance Abuse Prevention Strategy.

Author Bio: 

Lynda Bergsma, PhD, is Assistant Professor, University of Arizona, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. She combines training in mass communications and public health to conduct service programs, education, and research in media literacy and public health/prevention. The final report of the Blowing Smoke project can be found at complete research evaluation report