Recently, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published an article analyzing the role of Media in introducing young people to drug use. That advertising is effective is obvious; just consider the fact that there are companies willing to spend more than $25 billion every year on advertising tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs. Research has revealed that advertising may actually be responsible for up to 30% of adolescent tobacco and alcohol use.
In addition to traditional advertising, TV programs and movies show substance use in a way that is generally positive, but since it is not seen as advertisement it has been less criticized. Consequently young people get a mixed message about substance abuse, and media is contributing significantly to the risk of young people engaging in substance use. Teenagers today are 400 times more likely to see an alcohol ad than to see a public service announcement that discourages underage drinking.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a ban on all tobacco advertising in all media, limitations on alcohol advertising, avoiding exposure of young children to substance-related content on television and in movies. They also want to incorporate the topic of advertising and media into substance abuse– and prevention programs, and implementing media education programs in the classroom (1).
Cigarettes and Alcohol – The Starting Point
It has been shown that an adolescent who smokes tobacco or drinks alcohol is 65 times more likely to try, for example, marijuana, than someone who abstains, and the younger the age at which experimentation occurs, the greater the risk of serious health problems later in life.
In media, smokers are often depicted as young, independent, rebellious, healthy and adventurous, and adverse effects of smoking are seldom shown. Nevertheless, more than 400,000 Americans die every year from illnesses directly related to cigarette use. Research has revealed that one of the most important factors in the onset of adolescent substance use is exposure to others who use drugs and several studies have confirmed that exposure to television and movie smoking is one of the key factors in making teenagers smoke.
Although the most recent analyses show that smoking has decreased in popular movies, the occurrence remains high. Alcohol remains the number one drug portrayed on American television: 1 drinking scene is shown every 22 minutes, compared with 1 smoking scene every 57 minutes and 1 illicit drug use scene every 112 minutes. More than one-third of the drinking scenes are humorous, and negative consequences are shown in only 23% (1). Imagine what it would be like if your family and friends would show the same behavior!
Alcohol, as portrayed on E.T.. Is it funny that a boy acts as if he’s drunk?
One study revealed that alcohol portrayals are as common on shows for 9- to 14- year olds as on adult oriented shows. Popular movies are nearly equally rife with alcohol, with only 2 of the 40 highest-grossing movies not containing alcohol depictions. Drinking is frequently depicted as normative behavior, even for teenagers. Results of a Columbia University study showed that teenagers who watch more than 3 R-rated films per month are 5 times more likely to drink alcohol compared with teenagers who watch none, and viewing R-rated movies was also associated with a six fold increased risk of trying marijuana.
Illicit drugs are rarely seen on television, with the exception of programs such as Showtime’s Weeds and AMCs Breaking Bad. Drug scenes are more common in movies (22% of the movies in 1 study contained drug scenes), and no harmful consequences are shown more than half of the time (1). Another study analyzing sex and drugs in the 200 most popular movies, showed that cannabis (8%) and other non-injected illicit drugs (7%) were less common than those with alcohol intoxication (32%) and tobacco use (68%) but tended to portray their use positively and without negative consequences. There were no episodes of injected drug use among those films (2).
The importance of how TV and movies influence young people is highly relevant, since it will have consequences on their behavior for the rest of their lives, and therefore interventions are crucial. It is alarming that Hollywood filmmakers do not seem to understand that humor tends to undermine normal adolescent defenses against drugs and legitimizes their use (1).
Do TV shows depicting drug use promote the use of drugs or do they help prevent substance abuse?
There are many movies and some TV series showing the life of drug users and dealers. Some of the most popular series are Weeds and Breaking Bad. They both show how an ordinary person living a normal family life gets into the business of drug dealing. In Weeds, a woman losing her husband starts to sell Marijuana to be able to maintain the lifestyle she is used to. She learns that many of her neighbors are actually using drugs, and gets dragged into the criminal world of drug dealing. In Breaking Bad, a high school chemistry teacher finds out that he has lung cancer and is likely to die within a few years. To provide for his family he starts cooking and selling meth together with an ex-student, and just like in Weeds, he finds himself in the world of drug dealing including the other criminal aspects that come along.
How do series like this influence people when it comes to drug use? They clearly show the downside of using drugs, but is that enough to scare people off?
Blake Ewing is an assistant district attorney in Texas, who has watched every episode of Breaking Bad. He says in an online article for Time magazine (3) that, to start with he thought Breaking Bad is not promoting drugs, and that no responsible adult is going to dial up their local meth dealer after watching it. But he admits that lately, he has started to think about what effects the fact that more and more people are getting familiar with Meth, might have: “For a while I tried to convince others that Breaking Bad doesn’t really glorify meth; in fact, it mercilessly portrays the self-destruction that follows naturally from meth addiction. I argued that the show doesn’t promote meth any more than Schindler’s List promotes Nazism — that is, it may desensitize viewers to the horrors of that particular world, but it would never encourage them to adopt the lifestyle. After all, it’s only a TV show.”
And while Breaking Bad may not glorify the life style, it does normalize the idea of meth for a broad segment of society that might otherwise have no knowledge of that dark and dangerous world.
Another insight on Breaking Bad comes from Douglas Haddow in the Guardian (5). He argues that Breaking Bad doesn’t show you the real drug war drama: “It’s a form of pop-culture therapy that normalizes drug violence and helps us to accept what’s transpiring on the streets of Mexico and every major North American city as a naturally occurring phenomenon. By ignoring the bit players of the war on drugs – those who, regardless of choice, still get sucked in and chewed up – it boils an extremely complex situation down to the sins of the individual. This is a war that isn’t really a war at all, but a cacophony of bad policies that has resulted in a relentless human rights disaster.”
So how does the creator of this highly debated series, Vince Gilligan think? It seems that he has focused on the plot rather than spending too much time thinking about the moral and political aspects. In an interview by Vice (6), asking about the efficiency of the war on drugs on the borders of Mexico he responds: “I’m kind of agnostic on that subject. I don’t know if it’s the best possible way to go. I don’t know if decriminalization of certain drugs is the way to go, either. You’d think I’d have a stronger opinion on it, but I spend all my time thinking about this one character and not the politics at large. Having said that, I know there are a lot of well-intended men and women trying to stop the flow of drugs and I know these cartels in Mexico, to use one example, are the cause of a great deal of pain and suffering and death. Having said that, is it the right way to go to hit them even harder and keep it all criminalized, or should we suddenly take them out of the market by making all that stuff legal? Hard to say.”
AMC’s Breaking Bad: moral and political issues vs. character development. The following clip includes graphic scenes.
Dr Hasantha Gunasekera at the University of Sydney, who led the study analyzing drug use in the 200 most popular movies (2), said in an interview with BBC (4): “The movie industry influences the perception of billons of people around the world. Obviously, we understand that the movie industry is there to entertain and to make money, and is not an instrument of public health advice. But we feel it is surprising that there’s no attempt to reflect safe sex practices or the consequences of drug use. The motion picture industry should be encouraged to depict safer sex practices and the real consequences of unprotected sex and illicit drug use.”
He was responded to by Edward Lawrenson, deputy editor of the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine: “I don’t think it’s the role of the film industry to educate the public about public health.”
Movies on the “Top 200 list of most popular movies” that depict drug use are for example Trainspotting (about a guy, deeply immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene, who tries to clean up and get out, despite the allure of the drugs and influence of friends) and Requiem for a Dream (The film depicts different forms of addiction, which lead to the characters’ imprisonment in a world of delusion and reckless desperation that is subsequently overtaken by reality). They are both movies that show the downside of drug use, and the writer of Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky, explains how he wanted to describe drug addiction (7): “Ultimately Requiem for a Dream is about the lengths people go to escape their reality, and that, when you escape that reality, you create a hole in your present, because you’re not there. You’re chasing off a pipe dream in the future, and then you’ll use anything to fill that vacuum.”
Trainspotting clearly depicts the downside of drugs. The following clip includes graphic scenes
To conclude, most people do agree on the danger of making drugs into something normal, and this danger is more pronounced in series as compared to movies. A movie is a onetime shot, it does influence you, but it is not continuously present. While series make you get to know the characters, you see them every week, and they will stay in your memory, sometimes feeling a bit like your friends. Seeing this repetitive use of drugs by someone you start to think you know might have significant influence on your decision to use a drug or not.
(1) PediatricsChildren, Adolescents, Substance Abuse, and the MediaVol. 126 No. 4 October 1, 2010 pp. 791 -799
(2) Gunasekera, H., Chapman, S., Campbell, S., Sex and drugs in popular movies: an analysis of the top 200 films,J R Soc Med 2005;98:464–470
(3) Ewing, Blake, Breaking Bad Normalizes Meth, Argues Prosecutor, Time Magazine, Sept. 20, 2013. (http://ideas.time.com/2013/09/20/breaking-bad-promotes-meth-use-argues-prosecutor/)
(4) Movies ‘condoning sex and drugs’ BBC News Online, Monday, 3 October 2005 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4294476.stm)
(5) Douglas Haddow, Breaking Bad doesn’t show you the real drug war drama, The Guardian, Friday 31 August 2012 (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/31/breaking-bad-drug-war-drama)
(6) Abdullah Saeed, I Tried to Talk Drugs with the Creator of ‘Breaking Bad’, Aug 11 2013 (http://www.vice.com/read/i-asked-the-creator-of-breaking-bad-about-meth)
(7) Jeremy Kirk, 32 Things We Learned From the ‘Requiem For a Dream’ Commentary, February 24, 2012 (http://filmschoolrejects.com/features/32-things-we-learned-from-the-requiem-for-a-dream-commentary-jkirk.php#iWt7j9ZIkkuPkBaK.99)