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Arnold School of Public Health

Thrasher leads international conversation about smoking portrayals in media

March 9, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, 

Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior’s Jim Thrasher has become an expert on the effects of media and policies on youth tobacco use and adult smoking cessation over more than a decade of researching the topic. After recently publishing the largest global study of tobacco and alcohol use within nationally-produced films in BMC Public Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) approached the associate professor to partner with them in a global push to raise awareness about the impact of smoking portrayals in film. In doing so, WHO has included Thrasher’s findings from his BMC Public Health study, as well as several other studies he and his collaborators have published on this topic, in their recently released report aimed at reducing tobacco use among youth.

Thrasher worked with WHO to launch and promote its new report, Smoke-Free Movies. This report is based on evidence from studies like Thrasher’s in order to detail scientific progress and make a call to action for next steps toward reducing tobacco portrayals in movies in order to reduce smoking among youth. The organization recommends a variety of policies, such as consideration of tobacco in the film rating process and elimination of public subsidies for films that contain tobacco — recommendations that Thrasher made in his BMC Public Health study. 

Armed with this new evidence-based report, WHO enlisted Thrasher to assist with their media outreach activities. Thrasher is no stranger to working with the media due to his research expertise in the widely applicable and hotly debated areas of tobacco policy and communication campaigns to prevent tobacco use and promote smoking cessation. For example, the findings from his BMC Public Health study were covered by hundreds of news outlets (e.g., CNN) around the world in January of this year. WHO capitalized on the study’s momentum in the popular press by including data from this study in their press releases to launch the Smoke-Free Movies report, as well as setting up press conferences in Geneva and Buenos Aires in early February to further fuel the conversation. Thrasher’s work with his collaborators and the Pan American Health Organization in Argentina resulted in hundreds of more news stories on the topic across Latin America. 

Just a few weeks later, a class action lawsuit led by a father in California has been proposed against the Motion Picture Association of America. The lawsuit points out that Hollywood has known since 2003 that tobacco portrayals in youth-rated films (i.e., G, PG, PG-13) is one of the major causes of nicotine addiction among children. If successful, the suit could lead to a significant expansion of legal responsibilities of the filmmaking industry, especially how films are rated and financed, pertaining to tobacco portrayals. 

“Based on many studies conducted across 14 different countries, the U.S. Surgeon General and the National Cancer Institute have concluded that exposure to smoking in movies causes youth to smoke,” says Thrasher. “Along with pressure from public health groups, banning tobacco industry payoffs for including tobacco in films has led some Hollywood studios to reduce the amount of tobacco in their movies. Still, more than half of Hollywood films rated for youth include tobacco, and even more films made in other countries contain tobacco. The policies that WHO recommends would help reduce youth tobacco use. The new class action lawsuit against the Hollywood studios recognizes that such steps can and should be done.”

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