There’s an interesting connection between the portrayal of smoking in the media and our feelings towards adopting the habit. Are we subconsciously drawn towards the cigarette because the people on the big screen have made it “cool” to do so? To what degree is media influence to blame when it comes to encouraging youth to try for the first time? We’ve conducted interviews with a few smokers and nonsmokers, and we asked them what they thought, how they felt, and whether smoking in the media constituted a valid threat or is merely harmless.
Media Influence *
Like how newborn animals learn by imitation, humans are very prone to influence. It’s not always a conscious process, but in our young years we watch others and we observe the world; we absorb all the data, and then we select behaviors that best align with the identity we are trying to construct for ourselves. There’s no guarantee that these behaviors are right, or that the attitudes we develop are healthy, and that’s why parenting is a complex job. A parent holds the responsibility of controlling what their child is exposed to, and is supposed to help them filter out damaging habits, and making correct choices. But this tasks is further complicated by our continuous exposure to various types of media, every day.
Smoking in the media is fairly popular. And the depiction of smokers is often favorable. A study has found a concrete connection between exposure to smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking by adolescents. Young teenagers who have never tried smoking before had an over all positive impression of the experience due to how the attitude was presented in the media, beside cementing their wrong, but widespread, conviction that most adults smoke.
The following is a collection of replies by smokers and nonsmokers to the simple question of “how do you feel about the portrayal of smoking in the media?” The answers are paraphrased for clarity when needed and are the opinions and beliefs of their respective owners.
Romanticizing Smoking *
“I have been a smoker for 4 years. I’m 26, so technically, I didn’t start smoking at the age where one is most susceptible to media influence. And while I’d be a little offended if any one think I’ve started smoking to fulfill some fantasy image of myself that has been commercialized by the media, I think I can’t wholeheartedly disagree either. I know that many times we are affected by things on a deeper level, and that the effects are not direct or straightforward.
I tried my first cigarette in a social gathering with friends, and before I started smoking I wasn’t exactly repelled by the idea. I’m sure some part of my brain accepted smoking before my body even learnt to crave nicotine. I think the portrayal of smoking in the media has made light of the issue. We only see the best parts of the experience, the fun social events where you share a cig with the gang, or the emotional bonding when a man and a woman smoke together and have a deep conversation. These scenes always romanticize smoking, and we never get to see the consequences, so we’re left with the good and our brains easily ignores the bad.”
It’s Not a Conspiracy *
“I’m an ex-smoker and a father of two girls. I took the decision to quit the day my wife told me we are having our first baby. I did because I knew as a father, I no longer have the freedom to be whatever I wanted. What I had to be is a role model for my girls. So yes, I know. Kids see, kids do. They’re young and impressionable and we should protect them from bad influence at all costs. But when I think of how smoking is portrayed in the media, what I can honestly see is the truth. I don’t exactly believe that it is the media’s responsibility to teach our kids right from wrong. It is ours. What media does is tell stories. And in the real world, smokers exist, and some of them are exactly how we see them on TV.
I was a smoker once, and for 12 years, and I can’t deny that I worry about my kids would think if they knew that, or every time they see smokers on the screen depicted positively. But that’s my job. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy and I don’t think movies or TV shows should be preachy, or necessarily teach us lessons. I’m a father and I take full responsibility for that.”
Show Us the Whole Truth *
“I’ve never smoked in my life. In my youth I tried once, never finished the cigarette and never tried again. I think maybe I was immune to peer pressure and all smoking temptation because I grew up seeing what smoking can do first hand, to someone I love. But yeah, media is very influential, and I’n glad national TV no longer allows cigarette ads. But we still see smokers in movies and series all the time. I guess we can’t ban that because it’s realistic. But at the same time, maybe we should be a little careful about the picture we export to young ones. I don’t believe every smoking scene should come with a warning, but enough with the stereotypical images of strong lovable characters who are always smokers. Maybe storymakers think smoking adds an edge or some depth to the character. But that shouldn’t be it. Smoking destroys lives. Show us that, show the kids what would happen if they start. It’s only realistic too.”
It’s an Addiction *
“I’ve been trying to quit for a long time. What I tell anyone who wants to try or who’s still in the ‘casual occasional smoking’ phase is… don’t start. You don’t know how it is. It’s not like the movies. It doesn’t make you look tougher, more manly, or more rebellious. It makes you tired and sick. Maybe what we need is for this message to be stressed on in the media. It’s not a habit; It’s an addiction, and just like how alcoholics are portrayed, it’s not easy to break. And it can kill you and ruin your family.”