Tobacco use by film-stars sends a wrong signal for youth

Super-star of Indian film industry Shahrukh Khan was again reported to smoke in a no-smoking zone at a night club (Source: The Hindustan Times, 13 April 2011). The HT news reported: "Actor Shah Rukh Khan was caught lighting a cigarette in a no-smoking zone at the  nightclub, LAP... posted  a picture of the actor taking a puff with buddy Arjun Rampal right next to the DJ console, where smoking is prohibited."

Mounting evidence from India and all around the world is clearly against portrayal of tobacco use in films, and also against using tobacco by film stars in public places as it sends a wrong signal to our young people and is one of the key factors that initiate them into tobacco use.

"One of the major influences on the uptake of teen tobacco use is the glamourisation of tobacco use in movies and on television. This has been well documented by comprehensive research studies in India and US" said Professor (Dr) Rama Kant, a World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General's Awardee 2005 and President-elect, Association of Surgeons of India (ASI) 2012. Presently he serves as the Executive Director, Piles to Smiles Clinics, Lucknow. He is the former Professor and Head of the Surgery Department at the prestigious King George's Medical College (KGMC - now upgraded and renamed as CSMMU).

"Dartmouth Medical School, National Cancer Institute USA and American Legacy Foundation report, titled 'First Look Report, Trends in Top Box Office Movie Tobacco use - 1996-2004',  has an exhaustive content analysis of top 100 box office movie hits each year for nine years duration (1996-2004). This report confirms that smoking continues to be depicted in nearly three-quarters of movies. Two studies conducted earlier by the Dartmouth Medical School found that one-third to one-half of youth smoking initiation is explained by exposure to smoking in movies" added Prof Rama Kant.

"Similar study done by World Health Organization and Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2003 revealed that 76% of Indian movies had tobacco use shown in them. In 1991, where 22% of top box office movie hits had lead characters using tobacco on-screen, in 2002, this escalated to 53% tobacco use depiction by lead characters in Indian movies. This study also demonstrated that 52.2% of children in India who had their first smoke were influenced by tobacco use depicted in movies" said Prof Rama Kant.

"A repeat follow-up study conducted by WHO and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India on top box office movie hits during 2004-2005 demonstrated that tobacco use depiction in movies has become more aggressive as compared to previous years. During 2004-2005, 89% of all movies analyzed contained tobacco use on screen and 75.5% movies depicted leading stars using tobacco on screen. Moreover 41% of movies screened had clear and distinct tobacco brand placement. Not surprising, that 33.7% of youth respondents could recall brand use in films too" said Prof Rama Kant.

Prof Rama Kant said categorically that stopping depiction of tobacco use in films is an evidence based public health measure.

Former Indian Health Minister Dr Ambumani Ramadoss had earlier said to CNS that "film and tobacco industry are hands-in-glove involved" and suggested big pay-offs too. Dr Ramadoss' proposal to ban tobacco use in movies and TV was vehemently opposed by film industry during his tenure as India's health minister.

One of the easiest ways to significantly bring down number of children and youth who get initiated to tobacco use, without any budgetary allocation for this public health exercise, is to remove depiction of tobacco use in films and TV.

Exposure to tobacco use in movies is clearly linked to youth tobacco use. Simply put, more must be done to ensure that tobacco use in movies is removed from films seen by our nation's youth. We have within our power one simple and effective way to jump start the decline in youth tobacco use - delete tobacco use in films from the list of influences that rob our youth of longer and healthier lives by removing tobacco use from movies, unless they clearly depict the negative health effects. Together we can ensure that movies continue to entertain and inspire our children and youth, and at the same time, save countless lives from tobacco addiction and premature death.

The Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003, empowers us to impose a fine on those violating ban on smoking in public places in India. Let's hope next time authorities will impose the fine on those smoking in no-smoking places.

Although we respect personal freedom of individuals like Shahrukh Khan, yet we will like to humbly remind people like Shahrukh that they also shoulder enormous responsibilities too being one of the most famous youth icon in Indian film industry. Their smoking behaviour and using tobacco in a no-smoking zone, a public place, sends a wrong signal to our young people. Let's hope saner voices reach Shahrukh Khan and he votes for his own health, and also for promoting healthy behaviour in his admirers. World is watching Shahrukh.

Bobby Ramakant - CNS