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Fewer cigarettes, more alcohol in youth-rated movies

There has been a significant increase in the appearance of alcohol products —particularly familiar brands of beer — in youth-rated movies in recent years.

Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead having a chat and a beverage in 2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."
Universal Studios Entertainment/Photo by Kerry Hayes

Although cigarettes and other tobacco products are making fewer appearances in youth-rated movies than they were a decade or so ago, the same can’t be said for alcohol.

In fact, there has been a significant increase in the appearance of alcohol products —particularly familiar brands of beer — in youth-rated movies in recent years, according to a study published earlier this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

That’s a worrisome trend. For other studies have not only shown that tobacco imagery in movies is associated with teen smoking, they have also linked children’s exposure to on-screen use of alcohol with earlier, heavier and more abusive drinking.

And although it’s good news that smoking and other uses of tobacco are appearing less frequently in popular movies than they were in the 1990s, that trend has recently shown signs of reversing.

A couple caveats

Yes, smoking and drinking is sometimes essential for a particular movie’s plot or character development — or to accurately depict a time period when people smoked and drank a lot. But all too often, the presence of these products in movies is gratuitous and driven by marketing rather than artistic purposes.

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And, yes, it’s also true that an association between two things — in this case, exposure to alcohol and tobacco in movies and the early and heavy use of those products by children and adolescents — is not the same as a proven cause-and-effect.

Still, this study is interesting because it suggests that letting companies self-regulate their marketing of harmful products to children doesn’t work.

How the study was done

For the study, researchers at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine examined the 100 top-grossing movies for the years 1996 to 2009. Specially trained “coders” viewed the movies, recording the duration of each on-screen use of tobacco or alcohol and the presence and name of each product brand.

Of the 1,400 movies included in the study, 906 (64.7 percent) were rated for youth (G, PG, or PG-13), and 494 (35.3 percent) were rated for adults (R). The coders found 500 separate appearances of tobacco brands and 2,433 appearances of alcohol brands. Almost half (231) of the tobacco brands and almost two-thirds (1,528) of the alcohol brands appeared in the youth-rated movies.

The five most common tobacco brands were Marlboro, Camel, Kool, Winston and Newport. The five most common alcohol brands were all beers: Budweiser, Miller, Heineken, Coors and Corona.

Tobacco: on the decline

Over the 14 years covered in the study, placement of tobacco brands decreased about 7 percent each year between 2000 and 2006, at which point they remained steady at about 22 per year. Minutes of on-screen tobacco use also fell substantially, particularly between 1999 and 2000. In that single year, it plummeted 42.3 percent in youth-rated movies and 85.4 percent in adult-rated ones.

Those remarkable drops reflect the 1998 adoption of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and most state attorneys general. The agreement dramatically curtailed how tobacco products could be marketed, and included a provision that prohibited companies from paying movie producers for on-screen product placement.

Alcohol: a different story

The researchers found a much different trend for the product placement of alcohol in movies. Alcohol brand appearances increased by 5.2 per year in youth-rated movies, from about 80 per year at the start of the study to 145 per year at the end. There was no statistically significant change in the minutes of on-screen alcohol use, however.

As the authors of the study point out, the alcohol industry has been working under voluntary guidelines since 1999 to self-regulate the placement of alcohol brands in movies watched by children and teens. The Federal Trade Commission is charged with the responsibility of periodically examining the effectiveness of those guidelines.

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This study’s findings suggest, however, that those self-regulatory guidelines “are not adequately protecting youth,” write the Dartmouth researchers. “To the extent the alcohol branding in these movies is paid for, it can be expected to increase alcohol screen time and lead to higher exposure to onscreen alcohol use as well. This practice raises health concerns in light of longitudinal studies linking movie alcohol exposure with problematic underage drinking.”

Recommendation: Change the rating system

Acknowledging that new regulatory action is unlikely in today’s political climate, the researchers suggest changing the movie rating system instead.

“Movies that depict drinking in contexts that could increase curiosity or acceptability of unsafe drinking should be rated R,” they write. “… For example, no movie with a youth rating should show underage drinking, binge drinking, alcohol abuse, or drinking and driving. Rating such movies R preserves the opportunity for free speech (the director may retain the material as long as he or she is willing to accept an adult rating) and offers a degree of protection to the adolescent audience (because fewer youth are exposed to R-rated movies.”

Unfortunately, the study is behind a paywall, but you’ll find the abstract on the JAMA Pediatrics website.