A Healthy Childhood Means A Tobacco Free Childhood

Life seems to have come full circle for Aamir Khan, the much acclaimed Bollywood star, who after being named the brand ambassador in July 2011, of the Women and Child Development Ministry, for spreading the message of curbing malnutrition among children and mothers, was recently appointed, in November 2011, as the national brand ambassador of UNICEF, to promote Child Nutrition and Child Rights. This has raised a few eyebrows in view of the fact that the same Aamir Khan had earlier endorsed a soft drink brand, despite several studies pointing to the health hazards of cola drinks for children. This is what he had to say in his defence, “I don’t have a tainted past. I haven’t done any work till date that would hurt anyone… at least not deliberately. But, if anyone still got hurt then I’d just say sorry to them from the bottom of my heart. I did that ad long time ago. I don’t even endorse the brand anymore.”

 Noble sentiments indeed, especially when they come from one of the highest-paid actors on the endorsement circuit, after he reportedly pocketed Rs 8-10 crore annually for endorsing a nutritionally dubious product for 10 long years. Aamir Khan had been the face of Coke's most popular campaigns over the years, including 'thanda matlab Coca-Cola' which was an instant hit with the Indian masses, young and old.

It is something like having your cake and eating it too, along with the icing. Of course there is no doubt about his business acumen in being a part of meaningful as well as entertaining cinema as a versatile actor (Lagaan,Rang De Basanti, Three Idiots), wonderful director (Taare Zameen Par) and a great producer (Jaane tu yaa Jaane naa, Lagaan, Peepli Live). However, one needs to practice what one preaches, and set up personal examples while treading the grounds of social responsibility. He also joined some other prominent members of the film industry in rubbishing The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare's recent directive to ban smoking on screen, and termed it as an attack on creative freedom and expression. According to him, "I have never advocated smoking, which is why I have stayed away from doing tobacco advertisements. However, my answer to the Government's directive on banning smoking on screen or showing it with justifications in a film is: If you show other illegal activities on screen, then don't attack only smoking; Don't attack my creative freedom; Don't take away the audience's right to enjoy cinema by imposing views/restrictions on them, especially when they could be watching a crucial scene. How can you do that?"

Is Aamir Khan really so naive as to be oblivious of the dangerous impacts of smoking scenes in films, particularly on young minds. According to a recent study  (the largest to date involving over 16,000 teens from across 6 European countries) on Smoking in movies and adolescent smoking, published in Thorax, an international journal of respiratory medicine: The link between smoking in movies and adolescent smoking is robust and transcends different cultural contexts. Youth who were highly exposed to onscreen smoking were about twice as likely to smoke as lightly exposed youth. Limiting young people's exposure to movie smoking could have important public health implications.

Another study conducted by the NGO Hriday Shan on 4000 teenage students across 12 schools of Delhi, and published in July, 2011 in the British Medical Journal also confirmed that: ‘Watching tobacco use in Bollywood movies and receptivity to tobacco promotional activities were both independently associated with ever tobacco use among adolescents in India. Onscreen smoking is not just encouraging children twice as much to smoke - but worse – it is affecting the youngest of the lot. Today an average 6th standard student is using more tobacco products than an 8th standard student.” This should come as a shocking revelation to unsuspecting parents, and a danger sign that shows how vulnerable children are to tobacco advertising.

Popular film stars of the likes of Amir Khan are virtually venerated and emulated by youngsters in India. So Aamir Khan would do well to take up his new role, as brand ambassador for children, seriously by setting up an example himself. He cannot delink his personal habits and leanings (freedom of expressions notwithstanding) from a public cause. It is hoped that he would take this assignment seriously, and his new avatar, of promoting good nutrition in children, would give him the moral strength to quit smoking, once for all, and also encourage him not to endorse smoking in films/ and or unhealthy food products, so that he is able to convince children/youth on the need of a ‘tobacco and smoke free society’, which is essential for a nutritionally balanced growth of the child.

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" published in November 2011. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)

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Citizen News Service (CNS), India/Thailand
CNS Tobacco Control Initiative, India
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