Alcohol and Tobacco Use in Movies on the Decline

By Shawn Dwyer 12/10/13

A new report shows that boozing and smoking has been seen less frequently in movies over the past three decades, even though sex and violence remains the same.

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Photo via Lionsgate Films

According to researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the number of instances of people smoking and drinking on the big screen has dropped since 1985, with tobacco use in movies taking a drastic plunge.

The study, which will be published in the January 2014 issue of Pediatrics, focused on 390 popular movies released between 1985-2010 with the goal of comparing instances of sex, violence, and alcohol and tobacco use in PG-13 movies to R-rated films. And while the silver screen staples of sex and violence remained static during that period, alcohol use in movies dropped from 89.6 percent to 67.3 percent and tobacco use fell from 68 percent to 21.4 percent. But despite the decline, researchers remained concerned about how alcohol and tobacco use were being portrayed regardless of the rating. “We know that some teenagers imitate what they see on-screen,” said Amy Bleakley, lead author of the study and senior researcher at Annenberg. “What concerns us is that movies aimed at younger viewers are making a connection between violence and a variety of risky behaviors – sex, drinking and smoking.”

Daniel Romer, a director at the Annenberg Center, expressed equal concern over how adolescents might mimic what they see on screen. "We know that some adolescents will initiate alcohol use, some adolescents will initiate tobacco use and some adolescents will initiate sex," based on what they see, he said. But while the report called into question Hollywood’s ratings system, the Motion Picture Association of America defended it. "The purpose of the rating system is to reflect the standards of American parents, not set them – the rating board tries to rate a film the way they believe a majority of American parents would rate it,” said Kate Bedingfield, spokesperson for the MPAA. “Societal standards change over time and the rating system is built to change."

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.