Tobacco in Media
Not So Smoke-free Media

Not So Smoke-free Media

The fight against tobacco imagery in media has remained an uphill battle. However, the playing field is beginning to level. The Master Settlement Agreement kick started efforts to protect youth from being targeted subjects of tobacco advertising and eliminate branding advertisements in media. To quantify the compliance of the Master Settlement Agreement and advocate for youth, Smoke-free Screens (SFS) was created. We are a youth research group under Breathe California Sacramento Region and a partner of Truth Initiative that codes Top 10 Box Office Hits and binge-worthy youth television shows for tobacco imagery. In the most current release of Truth Initiative’s While You Were Streaming report, findings show 60% of the 15 most popular shows among 15- to 24-year-olds contained depictions of tobacco in 2021. From 2020 to 2021, tobacco depictions have not decreased across popular youth shows and have effectively exposed 25 million young people to tobacco imagery. However, tobacco messaging amongst youth is shifting. Youth are beginning to associate tobacco use with high-risk behavior (Truth, 2023).

New findings from a 2023 survey released from the University of Michigan, Monitoring the Future, show a significant decline in e-vaping from 27.3% to 23.2% among 12th graders and 20.5% to 17.6% among 10th graders, within the past year. Meanwhile, 8th grade use has held steady at 11.4%. Despite the decrease in e-vaping amongst highschoolers, e-vaping amongst our younger youth population has not declined. As youth attitudes and perception of tobacco use change, so does the strategy of production companies. It is wise to stay mindful and recognize the relevance of tobacco in media as production companies stray from traditional blatant advertising.

In recent years, strides in the industry to comply with tobacco-free messaging have been adopted by prominent production companies. For example, Walt Disney Studios has successfully removed tobacco imagery in new renditions of classics without losing character impact. Historically, main characters in children’s classic films that were associated with tobacco props are currently being replaced by novel items. Notable prop swaps are seen in live action remakes including Cruella and Pinocchio. The infamous villain, Cruella De’Ville, was once seen in the original animated film as a chain-smoker and known for her iconic cigarette holder. The remake now utilizes a fierce walking stick. In the most recent rendition of Pinocchio, Geppetto’s wooden tobacco pipe is replaced by a tinker tool used for his wooden crafts.

Although these notable changes in recent films highlight huge milestones in the fight against tobacco, there is always room for improvement. Take a look at the newest Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) in which Disney infiltrates the screen with cigarettes and broke its smoke-free streak. This shows that even those companies in the entertainment industry making a conscious effort to align with non-risky youth messaging still don’t always get it right. We acknowledge the positive changes being made across media platforms to reduce and eliminate tobacco imagery targeting youth, but the fight for smoke free screens is still not over. E-vaping and tobacco use amongst youth is still an issue that should not be swept under the rug. It is essential to continue the good fight, to continue giving our youth a voice, and protecting them from exposure to subtle and not so subtle tobacco imagery which may result in a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

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