International Day of Action on Tobacco and Movies
by Manjari Peiris
Daily News (Sri Lanka), Friday, 25 February 2005

The International Day of Action on Tobacco and Movies was celebrated worldwide on February 22. On this day, youth in thirteen countries took action to boost awareness of health harms from smoking in youth-rated movies. This International Day of Action took place five days before the 77th Academy Awards (February 27), which was watched by over 1 billion people worldwide.

Tens of thousands in a dozen nations rallied on February 22, to pressurise film/tele producers and directors to protest against movies/tele dramas promoting tobacco for kids. Researchers say that smoking in movies recruits more than half of new teen smokers.

There are paid tobacco product placements in movies, worldwide. Movies are made for the recruitment of children as film is better than any commercial that has been run on television or in any other magazine because the audience is totally unaware of any sponsor involvement. "Smoking is being positioned as unfashionable as well as an unhealthy custom. We must use every protective means at our disposal to refer its destructive trend," says tobacco industry documents.

Globally, most smokers begin in their teenage. The worldwide death toll from tobacco, now 5 million a year, is projected to double to 10 million a year by 2030 and to keep rising. The World Health Organisation projects that 70 per cent of these deaths will occur in low-income countries.

The number of people 18 and younger in the world today - 2.4 billion - is the largest generation in history. Unless trends change, experts project a total of 450 million tobacco deaths worldwide by 2050.

The second-largest tobacco company in the world, British American Tobacco (BAT), merged with giant Rothmans in 1999 in a $13 billion deal aimed at exploiting growing markets in China, Africa, India, Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Tobacco company documents show that major US tobacco companies spent millions of dollars to get their products and advertising collateral into hundreds of US movies from the late 1970s until at least the mid-1990s. Exposed in Congressional hearings, at least one US, tobacco company arranged to shift its brand placement activities to Europe. Many US films have European co-financing.

The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (US) between state Attorneys-General and major tobacco companies prohibits tobacco brand placement. But 'generic' smoking in kid-rated US movies has climbed dramatically since then.

In large-scale studies, researchers have established that exposure to smoking on-screen is the primary recruiter of new teenage US smokers. The US CDC cites smoking in US movies as a major reason why the decline in teen smoking rates, in the US, has stalled.

Movie content and audience composition data indicate that keeping tobacco use out of G/PG films while warning of tobacco presence in PG-13 movies would reduce adolescent exposure to smoking images on screen by a mere 5 per cent. However, an R-rating for tobacco use would reduce adolescent exposure by at least 50 per cent. Rigorous studies have established that a 50 per cent cut in exposure would cut recruitment by movies in half.

In Sri Lanka many smoking promotions are being propagated through films and teledramas. One brand is promoted at a time. As you carefully observe the scenes where smoking is depicted, you will understand that the particular scene has no relevance to the story at all, but portraying smoking scenes to symbolise characteristics such as enjoyment, heroism, freedom, bravery, relaxation, sex, etc.

In some films though the script does not indicate smoking scenes, the actors portray smoking while they act. In such instances, the directors or the produces should examine who is behind those actors, influencing them. Sometimes smoking scenes are selected and depicted as the jingles (commercials) to highlight the particular film advertisements.

There are films produced in Sri Lanka for children where many smoking promotional scenes have been depicted. Do children need smoking scenes in the films produced for them? At times the hero of the story is highlighted through smoking.

At times features written about film actors and actresses get published in newspapers along with a picture of her/him holding a cigarette.

Many views were expressed through media in discussions during the period from 1995 that smoking should be out of films and tele dramas. Then film producers and directors confirmed that there were no promotions through their products. But these promotions are being carried out in a very subtle and effective manner as product placements.

The film industry should be there to heighten the flavour, feelings and enjoyment of human beings. Limitation of that privilege or benefits by promoting smoking while hiding behind the film industry is very upsetting.

These producers and directors try to inculcate in the minds of children that heroes can be made by becoming actors/actresses or athletes. Heroes depicted through promotion of smoking make a big effect on children to motivate them to take up smoking. Therefore movies which show the manner a cigarette is held in hand or how a cigarette is puffed are taken as styles. The myths which teach that smoking is appropriate when one is in distress, stimulation for deep thinking, relaxation, for happiness are then inculcated in them. We should not let actors smoke in the movies because children and teenagers think it is fashionable and then imitate them.

Now we have seen and observed these subtle attempts very much. What we have to do now is to react to such attempts. Certain actors/actresses, producers, directors and other film artistes say that the audience at film halls is decreasing gradually and the film industry is at stake.

Who is responsible for this? It is those who contribute to producing low quality films that promote smoking. The real reason is decent parents do not like to send their children to watch such films as nobody wishes to see their children becoming a prey to cigarettes.

These film directors should decide whether they wish to win over an audience or sponsors? It is not possible to find sponsors for films where there is no audience.

If the hat is fitting, he/she may wear it by reacting to the contents of this article and criticising it. But what is important is to understand the reality and act as a responsible person.