Dazed and Confused: Impact of media on Substance Abuse

Alcohol and tobacco have their own role to play in the world of movies. Suave heroes casually smoking away, tipsy heroines, a comedy of errors induced by intoxication…these are common cinematic tropes associated with substance abuse. However, the association of intoxicants with violent scenarios involving crimes, brutality against women and road accidents is seldom shown. Non-serious media depictions of substance abuse and its correlation with luxurious or elitist conditions, increases the audience’s desire to use.

Baseline drug usage, brand familiarity, and the amount to which the young enjoy the media commercials, are all mediators. There is strong evidence to show that media portrayals of both alcohol and cigarette smoking, affect and increase rates of teen and young adult alcohol and tobacco intake. The media often links drug use with one’s identified peer group, which may encourage people of the same age to mirror such behaviour. Because there isn’t as much content that presents the negative impacts of substance abuse, exposure and learning are skewed towards the seemingly positive aspects of substance use.

It is interesting to note the trends of depictions of substance abuse in Indian Cinema. Before the 2005s and 2010s, the “villain” of many popular movies was seen to be smoking frequently or having drinking parties with their friends. Here, substance abuse was condemned, rejected, and presented in a negative light. On the other hand, “heroes” were shown consuming the same substances, but in a much more romanticized manner. If the scenes with the antagonists were dimly lit, filled with ominous music, these scenes with the protagonists were bright and full of energy with an atmosphere of fun. Alcoholism is trivialised and has become synonymous with the heartbroken heroes of Indian reel. Movies and TV shows normalise any kind of misbehaviour during drunkenness. The depiction of substance abuse has become increasingly commonplace nowadays, but there is an element of realism to such portrayals. Movies like Udta Punjab (2016) address the rampant issue of drug abuse in our country. Alcohol and drug abuse are generally catalysts to character development used to depict downfalls and dramatic descents into madness. However, movie plots are rarely focussed on the slow process of fighting addiction.

The problem is compounded by our country’s long-standing culture of hero-worship. In a place like India, where the audience goes to the extent of copying the speech, dressing sense, hairstyle and personality of superstars, it is only natural that they try to emulate their unhealthy habits as well. People tend to associate substance abuse with a lifestyle of opulence. This image is also propagated by tobacco and ‘pan-masala’ ads, which even go to the extent of hiring international names to promote their products. The harmful impacts that the consumption of these products will have on a person, are deliberately diluted in catchy one-liners delivered by screen favourites. Several alcohol companies use a similar strategy, associating their brands with “class” and style. Recently, actors like Amitabh Bachchan spoke out about the practice of “surrogate advertising”, wherein alcohol and tobacco companies promote restricted products in the disguise of a similar product.

There is now widespread agreement that regular exposure to media depicting substance addiction in children and teenagers can lead to substance abuse. Children and teenagers’ attitudes toward alcohol, tobacco, and other substances can be influenced by ads, movies, and television shows that portray substance use in a positive manner. Smokers are frequently depicted in the media as young, independent, rebellious, healthy, and adventurous, and the negative repercussions of smoking are rarely shown. When the media normalises and even glorifies substances, children and adolescents develop the wrong attitude and ideas about them at a very young age. Statistics show that 9 out of 10 top-grossing, youth-rated movies with smoking do not carry a smoking label, in the USA. It is even debated that giving an R rating to movies that feature scenes with smoking will reduce the number of teenage smokers by 18%. In this era of media, it is extremely important that we protect the malleable minds of the youth from wrong interpretations of substance abuse. We must be wary of the hip, attractive, consequence free portrayal of substance abuse in advertising, movies, magazines, video games, and television shows.

Publicizing alcohol is totally prohibited in all media and it is compulsory for movies to issue smoking and drinking advisories in scenes involving alcohol and tobacco. In 2019, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting made it mandatory for films and television programmes showing tobacco products, to carry anti-tobacco health spots of minimum 30 seconds duration in the beginning and the middle of the programme. The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) 2012 requires any depictions of tobacco products and their consumption in movies, to be justified to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). OTT content is becoming increasingly popular, especially amongst the young audience and its regulation poses a big challenge for the government. Moreover, there is still no dedicated health legislation which restricts portrayal of liquor use in movies.

Conclusion

While the media serves as a curse, it also has the unique potential to effectively spread awareness about substance abuse. It can be used to positively alter the perception of the masses towards substances and drive them away from the trap of addiction. Media is a powerful tool, when wielded correctly. It is high time that creators take responsibility for the type of content that they are putting out, in order to be true “heroes” to the generations of audience that look up to them.

Written by Gauri Mathur, Pratyusha Naik, Ishita Sarkar, Srilekha Bhattacharjee and Aarushi Sultania

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