What the Kids Are Watching: Fewer Tobacco Ads, But More Alcohol Ads in Movies

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Teens may be seeing more drinking on screen, but will that lead them to have more problems with alcohol?

In a new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, scientists studied the placement and prevalence of alcohol and tobacco products in 1,400 films that were among the top 100 box-office hits in the U.S. between 1996 and 2009.

According to the researchers, smoking and the appearance of tobacco products dropped during that period, by 42.3% in youth rated movies and by 85.4% in adult rated movies, while the appearance of alcohol increased.

The scientists credit the decline in movie smoking products to the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) in 1998, which forced the tobacco industry to reign in some of its marketing tactics and fund anti-smoking advocacy groups, which also curbed the appearance of smoking in films.

The same trend wasn’t true for alcohol. During the study period, alcohol brand product placement went up in youth rated movies from 80 to 145 each year. They write:

In summary, this study found dramatic declines in brand appearances for tobacco after such placements were prohibited by an externally monitored and enforced regulatory structure, even though such activity had already been prohibited in the self-regulatory structure a decade before. During the same period, alcohol brand placements, subject only to self-regulation, increased significantly in movies rated acceptable for youth audiences, a trend that could have implications for teen drinking.

Exactly how these placements influence adolescents’ smoking and drinking isn’t clear yet; the data from studies is conflicting. A 2012 analysis from six European countries reported that teens who saw more boozy movie scenes were more likely to binge drink. The study didn’t confirm that the drinking on screen was directly responsible for the adolescents’ own imbibing habits, however, although the researchers concluded that teens who watched drinking scenes were more likely to imitate what they saw, and considered binge drinking more acceptable.

Some experts, however, argue that such studies don’t establish any correlation between what teens see in the movies and their own smoking and drinking habits, since these analyses can’t determine whether these behaviors started before or after watching characters in films.

But if there is an association between the behaviors adolescents see on screen and their own decisions to pick up these habits, such early exposure could be potentially dangerous, since research shows that the earlier youth start drinking, the greater the likelihood for serious drinking problems later in life.

And given the shift in tobacco placements after the MSA, stricter regulation of the currently self-regulated alcohol industry may be needed to decrease drinking on screen. In the meantime, the researchers say that parents who are concerned about the potential negative effects that movie behaviors can have on their teens should watch movies with their children and have conversations about what they see on screen.