We have seen a significant decrease in smoking since the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids held the first “Kick Butts Day,” in 1996. At that time, the organization launched the day of action for young people to speak out against the tobacco industry, which slickly marketed cigarette use directly to them in a variety of ways. The event became an annual day of awareness and action for youth groups around the country.
Kick butts they did. Cigarette smoking rates fell 68 percent among adults, from 42.6 percent in 1965 to 12.5 percent in 2020. Similarly, from 2011 to 2020 cigarette smoking for high school youth decreased from 15.8% in 2011 to 4.6% in 2020. In 2019, Kick Butts Day rebranded to Take Down Tobacco National Day of Action. This year Take Down Tobacco Day is March 31.
Is it time to take a victory lap?
You would think so; but Big Tobacco has deep enough pockets to hire the sharpest marketers and brightest lawyers available. They’ve simply switched from marketing one form of nicotine or tobacco use to another — vaping. And, they’ve found a legal loophole. The Tobacco Master Settle Agreement (MSA) prohibits big tobacco from using television and movies as ways to promote their products. But, the agreement does not prevent e-cigarette manufacturers from doing so and attempting to normalize vaping among viewers.
And, there’s more, each year the tobacco companies must certify to the US Federal Trade Commission that they haven’t paid for their product to be placed in movies, TV shows or video games. But the agreement doesn’t cover streaming content like Netflix, Apple TV, Hulu, etc. The amount of streaming content makes it nearly impossible for anti-tobacco groups and regulators to monitor. More people now watch streaming content than the traditional networks.
While we pay more attention to vaping, smoking is rising from the ashes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tobacco use in top-grossing movies jumped 57% from 2010 to 2018. Meanwhile, in the real world, smoking rates in the US were going in the opposite direction. “The common consensus was that, thanks to decades of pressure from anti-tobacco groups, smoking in TV and films had all but disappeared. In fact, smoking has made a furtive, and somewhat puzzling, comeback in recent years. Agent Smith lights up in The Matrix Resurrections; Kate Winslet vapes in Mare of Easttown; and Christina Applegate’s character Jen sparks up in the woman buddy show, Dead to Me. There’s plenty of smoking in the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy and in Orange is the New Black, and also in Modern Family and Law & Order: SVU.” (SMH, 2022)
Why is this of concern? Research shows that youth exposure to tobacco imagery in movies and TV directly influences youth tobacco use behaviors. According to the Truth Initiative, 37% percent of adolescents who start smoking do so because of smoking images they saw in movies.
Professor Stanton Glantz, a longtime anti-tobacco activist and founder of Smoke Free Media at the University of California, San Francisco, which tracks the incidences of smoking in movies and video said, “One thing for sure is, these are not random creative decisions. Nothing in Hollywood happens by chance.”
What can we do to prevent our youth from vaping or the use of other modes of tobacco?
When parents, teachers, and other caring adults connect with the young people in their lives about the things they value and are important to them, they help them build the skills to cope with difficult situations in a positive way. Talking to youth about the facts and negative consequences of vaping and nicotine addiction will guide their future decisions that will ultimately impact their health.
Talk to the youth you care about, your opinion matters. If you are unsure how to go about talking about nicotine use, in all its forms, you should:
- Know the facts
- Put yourself in their shoes
- Take an open and calm approach
- Find the right time and place
- Take the time to practice