Researchers And Parents Worry About The Effect Of Seeing Drugs In Movies,
But How Real Is The Threat?

It may have started when Cheech and Chong went "up in smoke" in one of the
greatest American road-trip movies of all time. Or maybe it was when the LSD
and amphetamines of the '70s were glamorized in the block-buster movie "54."
It might have even been the "Friday after Next," or one of the two Fridays
before that. One way or another, a distinct genre of movies exists that
glorifies drug use and ignores its consequences.

At the same time there is another movie genre where drug use is depicted
realistically in all its unpleasant forms. In "Traffic," the seedy
underworld of the Tijuana drug trade is exposed. "Trainspotting" reveals the
highs of heroin while simultaneously depicting the death of a baby neglected
by a junkie mother. Perhaps most shocking is the entire film "Requiem for a
Dream," which portrays the hell and hopelessness some junkies live through
to get their fix.

These films represent the spectral split between depictions of drug use in
cinema today. When it comes to hard narcotics, for most filmmakers it's all
or nothing.

Cigarette smoking in films also stands as an issue of debate unto itself.
Whether illustrations of drug use in movies are simply reflections of our
society or subtle means of shaping our reality has always been a vivid
debate.

The new cinematic question, however, is between responsibility and
creativity. Do filmmakers have a social obligation to responsibly portray
drug use? Or is the need for creative independence a reason to keep drug
censorship out of the cinema?

The effects drugs in movies have on children is highly scrutinized. The
first quantitative measurement of drugs in movies was released jointly by
the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Substance Abuse, Mental
Health and Human Services Administration.

The groups examined 200 of the most popular movie rentals of 1996 and 1997.
Their results showed that 98 percent of these movies depicted substance use
while 22 percent showed illicit drugs. Since American teenagers are heavy
consumers of movies, the effects of filmic smoking, underage drinking and
drug use have become a concern for the two agencies.

The most studied of the three phenomena is smoking in movies, because health
experts say it has the strongest influence on kids.

According to a study published in the June 10, 2003, issue of The Lancet,
smoking in movies addicts over 1,000 kids every day and 340 of those kids
will die prematurely as a result of their addiction.

Dr. Priya Jaikumar, an assistant professor of film at USC, argues that the
Lancet's statistics are suspect.

"With so many influences on kids (such as) parents and schooling, how do
they identify that movie watching is the cause of starting to smoke?"
Jaikumar asked.

The accuracy of the Lancet study has also been questioned by other
academics.

The parent-friendly Web site www.smokefreemovies.com argues that calling
smoking "adult content" and giving smoking movies an "R"-rating would cut
exposure to children by 60 percent and prevent 195,000 tobacco addictions
and 62,000 premature deaths each year.

Jaikumar argued that smoking is a reality that has a legitimate place in
film because film is an art form. She points out that smoking characters in
movies are not always unwarranted because smoking is used as a symbol. She
pointed out film noir movies as an example where sex acts were sublimated
and represented by smoking instead.

Recently, the Oscar-winning film "Chicago" drew a lot of criticism for the
high amount of smoking it depicted. Anti-smoking activists argue that the
combination of high profile actresses with sexy and successful characters
make the link to smoking even more harmful.

Sophomore critical studies student Dennis Shin said he thinks the criticism
is stupid.

"(The movie) doesn't glorify smoking, it was the jazz age and smoking is a
part of that period and a way to show the timeframe," Shin said.

Shin also said that no movie had ever made him want to smoke or do drugs.

A teenage character in the movie "Traffic" pointed out that "for someone my
age, it's a lot easier to get drugs than it is to get alcohol." So teen
smoking is not the only issue of debate, especially because many teen's
knowledge about drugs is informed primarily through film.

Although the access children have to movies like "Blow" or "Dazed and
Confused" is limited, there are many movies that aren't about drugs but
highlight drug use during the film. Since 1992 teen drug use has risen 78
percent while the rate of adult drug use has remained the same, according to
a survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services.

No conclusive studies have linked this rise to drugs in movies, but the
increase prompts the examination of many social influences, media included.
Social analysts also argue that this rise is not necessarily a bad thing
because drug experimentation is a natural part of growing up. A USA Today
poll showed that this attitude about experimentation is common among teens.

The same vagueness that surrounds teen drug use exists in relation to drugs
in movies. Nick Martin, a junior majoring in cinema production, questions
the use of drugs in films. He feels that drug use in a movie that isn't
about drugs is too ambiguous.

"If someone is abusing alcohol in a movie, there is a clear message the
filmmaker is trying to send," Martin said. "They're telling you that the
character is depressed or neurotic, they have a problem one way or another.
But drugs are a mixed message. The person could be experimenting or going
through a Beatnik phase or something. Drugs are also glamorized, so
inserting drug use in a movie that's not about drugs doesn't make sense."

Professor Jaikumar agreed with Martin and suggested a way to educate as a
way to stop media being a factor in teen smoking or drug use. "What we
really need to do is educate people on filmic symbolism and the artistic
implications of drugs, alcohol and smoking. We need to teach people how to
read images instead of controlling images," Jaikumar said.

Recent ad campaigns and drug-education programs in schools function on the
belief that limiting smoking and drug use is not the responsibility of the
media but an issue that can be solved with knowledge. In Canada, the debate
over drugs has also taken a turn from the media to focus on the question of
medicalization verses criminalization. Still others argue that the real root
of drug use can be traced to a child's parents.

As far as the future of smoking and drugs in the movies, filmmakers said
that as long as smoking and drugs are a part of our society, they will be
incorporated into popular art forms; films included.


Pubdate: Wed, 29 Oct 2003
Source: Daily Trojan (CA Edu)
Copyright: 2003 Daily Trojan
Contact: dtrojan@usc.edu
Website: http://www.dailytrojan.com/