Recent studies raise concerns about the focus on smoking in films, from the US to Bollywood, according to Dr Melissa Stoneham and the JournalWatch service of The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA.


The cinematic portrayal of smoking sends an unhealthy message to youth

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Melissa Stoneham writes:

Smoking in Hollywood movies is a known risk factor for teen smoking in the USA and Europe.

For many years, tobacco companies paid studios to have their products appear in movies. Even though this practice is no longer allowed, movies for young people and even some movies for children may include images of characters using tobacco.

These images are powerful because they can make smoking seem like a normal, acceptable or even attractive activity. Young people may also look up to movie stars, both on and off screen, and may want to imitate behaviours.

Despite the banning of tobacco companies paying to display their wares on the big screen, a recently published American study found that in 2011, the top box office films showed more onscreen smoking than the prior year, reversing five years of steady progress in reducing tobacco imagery in movies.

This study found that the 134 top-grossing films of 2011 depicted nearly 1 900 tobacco “incidents” (an incident is defined as one use or implied use – such as a lit cigarette –  of a tobacco product by an actor).

Total tobacco incidents per movie rose 7 percent from 2010 to 2011. Among movies rated G, PG or PG-13, smoking incidents per movie soared by 36 percent.

So let’s look at what is happening within the movie industry in India. India is the world’s largest producer of movies and 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 behavioural attitudes of adolescents.

A study titled “Tobacco use in Bollywood movies, tobacco promotional activities and their association with tobacco use among Indian adolescents” published recently in the journal, Tobacco Control, 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 watching tobacco use in Bollywood movies and receptivity to tobacco promotional activities were both independently associated with tobacco use among adolescents in India.

The study used a cross-sectional sample of just under 4000 adolescent students (aged 12-16 years) from 12 schools selected randomly across New Delhi in 2009. The students were surveyed to assess the 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.

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

The study also found that those students who were receptive to tobacco promotions, or who had tobacco users as friends were 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.

In 2003, the Indian government enacted the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Regulation Act, which included a ban on tobacco promotion and advertising of tobacco products. In 2004, tobacco advertisements were also barred in other media. In 2005, the rules were further refined to combat smoking in films, and included measures including no character to be shown smoking, older movies to have health warnings, and other strategies to reduce the glamorisation of tobacco.

However, the ruling was condemned by filmmakers 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.

Some suggest the legislation was simply shooting the messenger, but with 800 000 Indians dying each year from smoking-related diseases and with the recent reversal of steady progress in reducing tobacco imagery in movies, all efforts to reduce tobacco use should be pursued.

Smoking by movie stars just continues to provide the message to young people that smoking is cool, edgy and an “adult” thing to do.

• Tobacco use in Bollywood movies, tobacco promotional activities and their association with tobacco use among Indian adolescents.  Monika Arora, Neha Mathur, Vinay K Gupta, Gaurang P Nazar, K Srinath Reddy and James D Sargent. Tob Control , Vol 21; Issue 5; Pages 482-487


About JournalWatch

The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA (PHAIWA) JournalWatch service reviews 10 key public health journals on a monthly basis, providing a précis of articles that highlight key public health and advocacy related findings, with an emphasis on findings that can be readily translated into policy or practice.

The Journals reviewed include:

  • Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH)
  • Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP)
  • Health Promotion Journal of Australia (HPJA)
  • Medical Journal of Australia (MJA)
  • Lancet
  • Journal for Water Sanitation and Hygiene Development
  • Tobacco Control (TC)
  • American Journal of Public Health (AMJPH)
  • Health Promotion International (HPI)
  • American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM)

These reviews are then emailed to all JournalWatch subscribers and are placed on the PHAIWA website. To subscribe to Journal Watch go to


PHAIWA is an independent public health voice based within Curtin University, with a range of funding partners. The Institute aims to raise the public profile and understanding of public health, develop local networks and create a statewide umbrella organisation capable of influencing public health policy and political agendas. Visit our website at


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