Depicting Tobacco Use In Films Adversely Influences Teenagers

A study titled “Tobacco use in Bollywood movies, tobacco promotional activities and their association with tobacco use among Indian adolescents” published recently in the British Medical Journal, explored the relation between watching tobacco use in Bollywood movies and tobacco use among Indian adolescents. The findings of the study, whose lead author is Dr Monika Arora, Head, Health Promotion and Tobacco Control, Public Health Foundation of India, confirmed that, "The odds of using tobacco once or more in a lifetime among students who were highly exposed to tobacco use occurrences in Bollywood films were found to be more than twice as compared to those with low exposure."

About 4000 adolescent students (aged 12-16 years) from 12 schools selected randomly across New Delhi in the year 2009, were surveyed to assess the teenagers' current and ever tobacco use status, receptivity to tobacco promotions (based on owning or being willing to wear tobacco-branded merchandise) and exposure to tobacco use in movies.

Each of the 59 selected movies (which included 45 top grossing films for the years 2006, 2007 and 2008) was viewed by coders and tobacco use exposure in each film was recorded. Altogether the films contained 412 tobacco use occurrences.

The prevalence of ever tobacco use in for boys and girls was found to be 6.2% and 4.3% respectively, thus suggesting that boys are much more exposed than girls.

The study also found that students who owned or were willing to wear tobacco branded merchandise had greater chances of being ever tobacco users.

Despite a comprehensive regulation, restricting tobacco promotions, nearly 7.3% of all the adolescents in the study reported owning a tobacco promotional item, which suggests that tobacco-branded merchandise still reaches adolescents even 6 years after enforcement of legislation that restricted tobacco promotion in all forms and supports.

Those who were receptive to tobacco promotions, or who had tobacco users as friends were also significantly more exposed to movie smoking. Exposure was also significantly higher for those with higher level of sensation seeking and, surprisingly, for those with more authoritative parents.

India, the world’s largest producer of movies, produces more than 1000 movies a year in several languages.  Bollywood represents the Indian Hindi movie industry, and the worldwide viewership for their movies is estimated to be about 3 million. Bollywood movie stars in India are public figures, have large fan followings, and exercise tremendous influence on the behavioral attitudes of adolescents.

One of the major influences on the uptake of teen tobacco use is the glamorization of tobacco use in movies and on television. Movies are seen as very influential for kids and teens. Studies in developed countries have already established that exposure to smoking in Hollywood movies leads to increased risk of smoking among adolescents.

A 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, and that 52.2% of children in India who had their first smoke were influenced by tobacco use depicted in movies.

A repeat follow-up study on top box office movie hits during 2004-2005 demonstrated that tobacco use depiction in movies had become more aggressive. 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. 33.7% of the youth respondents could recall brand use in films too.

These disturbing findings compelled the Indian Government, at the behest of the then Health Minister, Dr Ramadoss, to ban smoking scenes in films in 2006. However, the ruling was condemned by film makers as an absurd infringement of artistic expression and challenged successfully in a court of law. In January 2009, the Delhi High Court quashed the government’s notification banning on-screen smoking on grounds that it violated the filmmakers’ fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression.

On the other hand, according to a study released recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of US movies showing smoking fell sharply between 2005 and 2010. A majority of movies -- 55 percent -- that scored huge box office success in the United States in 2010 had no scenes that included tobacco use. A study, released last year, found that between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of middle school students in the United States who smoked cigarettes fell from 11% to 5% and those who "experimented" with cigarettes fell from nearly 30% to 15%.

In fact three film companies-- Time Warner, Comcast  and the Walt Disney Companies, have drastically reduced smoking in their movies aimed at children and teens, as part of their policies to reduce on-screen tobacco use.

It is felt that, "The decreased presence of onscreen smoking might have contributed to the decline in cigarette use among middle school and high school students".

The findings of the latest study done in India provide evidence that tobacco companies are violating the prescribed regulations for tobacco promotions under Section 5 of ‘The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003’-COTPA 2003.

Both types of promotions (tobacco use by celebrities in movies and the distribution of tobacco-branded merchandise) should have been eliminated by the enactment of the Indian Tobacco Control Law. Alas! It is not so. This calls for a stricter implementation and enforcement of the aforesaid law, and also for strengthening of legal provisions in India to restrict depictions of tobacco use in Bollywood movies.

It is also high time that our venerated film stars became a little more socially responsible, other than giving money in charity. They should realize the negative impact of sending wrong health signals to the masses, artistic creativity notwithstanding. They should stop smoking on screen in the larger interest of society, and also refrain from off screen violations of the anti smoking law.

Creativity of expression and artistic freedom should not impact the youth negatively. They should be used to create a beautiful and livable universe.
Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She is also the Director of CNS Gender Initiative and CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI). She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email:, website:

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