Have Warnings About Cigarette and Drug Use in Movies and TV Shows Affected Smoking and Drug Use in Real Life?  

Cigarette and Drug Use in Movies

For fans of movies, videos, and TV, the question comes up: Does viewing performers using cigarettes and drugs influence smoking or drug use in real life? It’s an interesting question. Many of these performers are famous for their romantic/sexual appeal, talent, or relatability. And the image has, according to some critics, connotated independence, rebelliousness, and sex appeal. In the past, cigarette smoking in movies and television rarely showed the possible consequences of tobacco use, including addiction, health issues, or death. 

More recently, the message of cigarettes and drug use has become more nuanced, with villains, victims, anti-heroes, and supporting characters indulging in these activities and showing more of the consequences. We can look at the television series Sons of Anarchy to see that many of the characters, who are complex and often have anti-hero traits, smoking. One character, an avid smoker, relies on an oxygen tank.

Do actions and behavior in the media influence individuals? When a performer engages in controversial behavior like the violence of some video games, shopping sprees on soap operas, binge-drinking in music videos, or cigarettes and drug use in dramas, does it spark a copy cat mechanism in the viewer? Or can it be a form of catharsis? Is it necessary to tell a story? Do realistic evocations of smoking or drug use, including the consequences, call us to examination and action? Does prohibiting substances, posting warnings or labels, or outlawing in media invite imitation or promote rebellion and alienation? Does it close or open ideas and dialogue? These are questions that invite exploration.


Causation or Correlation

The Centers for Disease Control suggest there might be a correlation between younger people smoking after being exposed to heavy onscreen smoking, compared to those with less exposure. And the Surgeon General has inferred a causal relationship between movies showing smoking and young people starting to smoke. However, it could be a self-selecting audience. For example, people who watch reality shows about rebuilding cars might be more likely to be car enthusiasts, but viewing could also fuel an interest. People engage in media for many reasons. They want to see characters who are in similar situations or have shared traits. They watch for aspirational needs, a sense of catharsis, to find solutions to problems, or as a warning or morality tale.



The film industry has reacted to bans and attitudes about smoking. Smoking scenes in films show individual movie company policies aren’t effective at minimizing smoking. Statistics in 2019 (the latest year available) show indy film companies making movies geared towards younger viewers, who didn’t have published policies, showed the most characters smoking. The 66% increase in tobacco incidents in PG-13 movies and doubling of tobacco incidents in R-rated movies, from 2010 to 2019, raise interesting questions. Does prohibiting a substance lend it a rebellious glamour? Does it become a cinematic shorthand for character and how the performer wants to rebel against society?



Edgy content ahead. Viewers can get a feel for the tone and content of media before viewing through labels, which let audiences know about drug use, smoking, violence, nudity, language, and sexual content. While the Federal Communications Commission put decency standards in place, it is not responsible for warnings or ratings at the start of films, trailers, TV shows, or on music CDs or video games packaging. These come from the entertainment industry.


Smoking and Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centers

Just like showing smoking and drug use in film and television, smoking bans in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers are a complex subject. Some people may use tobacco to calm down while working to overcome addictions to drugs or alcohol. No U.S. law prohibits smoking in private rehabilitation centers. The guidelines and rules approved by health organizations that ban smoking in rehab facilities only pertain to publicly funded rehab centers. Privately funded centers can use their own regulations. However, if state and federal guidelines demand a smoking ban in all rehab centers, private rehab centers follow that law. 

In the end, the complexity of viewing matter and lifestyle choices is a matter for each individual to create, based on history, interpretation, values, goals, and desires. 

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