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Pissing in the wind

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Hollywood holds a seemingly ambivalent attitude to its portrayal of drug use. For every movie that paints a realistic picture, there are a handful that continue stereotypes and make getting wasted look like a harmless pastime for the hip and cool. James Robinson dives into pop culture to see how Hollywood is affecting our attitudes towards drugs and their use.

When Dr Victor Strasburger sat down to watch last year’s Robert Zemeckis-Denzel Washington movie Flight, what he saw surprised him. Denzel Washington’s character, a pilot, miraculously lands a full commercial aeroplane in a paddock, but the movie mostly deals instead with how Washington’s twin addictions to cocaine and alcohol isolate him personally and erode his professional standing.

Strasburger is a paediatrician and adolescent health expert at the University of New Mexico as well as being a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Communications and Media, who has literally written the book on the psychological impact of the media on adolescents. He saw Flight as the all-too-rare example of a mainstream movie showing off negative consequences to substance use.

“Drinking especially is seen as normative behaviour, even for teens. Kids learn scripts from what they see, and what they learn is that everyone is doing it. Drunks are funny. It’s funny when people walk into things. You never see people throwing up,” Strasburger says.

Hollywood and the entertainment industry, Strasburger says, to an impressionable mind, act alongside parents and friends as a super peer, normalising drug use and presenting a reality of this behaviour that is inaccurate many more times than it isn’t.

It is not a new problem. In Hunter S Thompson’s journeys in the early 1970s through America’s ultimate sin city, detailed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he and his companion start their trip armed with “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.”

The narrative of the book sees Thompson shaken but never defeated. Even after ingesting enough substances to put down an elephant, it is the world that is insane around Thompson. At his lowest ebb, we see nothing that is a patch on Allan Ginsberg’s brutal memory of drug-using culture put forward in the opening lines of his 1956 poem Howl, a classic work of the Beat Generation: “I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the… streets at dawn looking for an angry-fix…”

“People have been pretty clueless about this stuff for a very long time,” Strasburger says. To some academics, he adds, exposure to Hollywood movies and TV on a developing mind is one of the most important and telling indicators of how early someone will have sex or have an issue with alcohol or whether they will start smoking, which, he says, has in turn proven a gateway influence towards experimentation with other illicit substances.

For every Leaving Las Vegas, with Nicholas Cage’s alcoholic screenwriter harrowingly drinking himself to death, there are many, many more The Hangover type movies, where a character arrives at his own wedding on a jet boat just as it is about to be called off, following a drink and drug-fuelled blowout, his face tattooed, his future brother-in-law’s finger severed, having just hours before stuffed a man he thought had overdosed on cocaine into a freezer … and it is played for laughs. Cult hit Requiem for a Dream’s unflinching portrayals of addiction might have put its audience on warning to the dangers of heroin, but it is dwarfed culturally by the legacy of Cheech and Chong and the antics of their cannabis-dependent derivations over the years.

Hollywood is guilty of a broad range of cluelessness. Mad Men’s adored lead character Don Draper smokes his way through a highlight reel of suave moments and drinks hard liquor during working hours, but we never see him out walking and getting puffed or drowsy in the afternoon at his desk. The George Clooney-directed Good Night and Good Luck, about journalist Edward R Murrow’s crusade against McCarthyism, is shot in black and white and jammed with characters glamorously positioned under soft lighting, smoking incessantly, yet there’s no inference that in four years’ time from when this film was set, Murrow would be dead at the hand of lung cancer.

Plato summed it up pretty well, Strasburger says. “Those who tell the stories hold the power in society.”

If there’s anything that cheers Strasburger up, it’s that there’s been tremendous progress in the research on this subject during the past 30 years, ever since the AAP invited him to take part in a panel on this issue in 1982. Not that Hollywood will take notice. “Every time these things come up, they trot out their best apologist to make fun of the research,” he says.

A growing body of longitudinal studies looking at the behaviour of adolescents over a series of years and assessing their actions in line with their exposure to different media is proving damning evidence to the potential public health impact of the depiction of substance use in Hollywood products and other entertainment media.

A Columbia University study in 2005 found that teens who watched more than three R-rated films per month were five times more likely to drink alcohol than teens who watched none. The American Medical Association asked 120 children between the ages of two and six to go shopping in a make-believe store and found that children who had seen PG- or R-rated films were five times more likely to include alcohol on an imagined shopping list. A Dartmouth study looked at the 40 top grossing movies of 2006 and found that only two didn’t include alcohol. Historical content analysis has found there to be an alcohol scene on TV every 22 minutes: over a third of these were played for comedy, and less than a quarter conveyed some negative consequence. With each further study, exposure to alcohol use in popular culture has been tethered more tightly to both early teenage drinking and, eventually, problem drinking.

Dr Jim Sargent, working out of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire in the United States, has examined the ‘theory of learned behaviour’ in teenagers and quantified compellingly and repeatedly how they model their behaviours in line with their role models, with exposure to R-rated movies proving a more powerful influencer of smoking than having a parent or a friend that smokes.

Dr Stanton Glantz, the Director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California in San Francisco and founder of Smoke Free Movies, is a big fan of Sargent’s work. He estimates that movies could result in as many as 390,000 new smokers each year, judging by the risks of exposure that people like Sargent have calculated and combining this with the quantifiable levels of exposure to smoking in pop culture.

Hollywood represents the largest recruiting tool for tobacco companies in America. The billions and billions of impressions young people in America are exposed to of people smoking as they’re forming new behaviours concerns Glantz. Smoking, despite some progress, is still somehow everywhere. “Argo had a lot of smoking in it. Even The Hobbit had a huge amount of smoking in it,” he says.

Smoking has a lingering, subconscious impact on younger movie watchers – a dose that builds up with repeat exposure.

“Movies are a powerful and emotive medium,” Glantz says. “There’s literature on scans performed that gauge the actual neurological response in the brains of smokers watching someone smoke on screen. The addiction centres of their brains fired up, as was expected, but so did the parts of the brain that were responsible for actually moving the mouth. These films were inspiring people to mechanically imitate what they were seeing.”

Connotations are also attached to substance use in Hollywood that normalise different behaviours for men and women. Alcohol is associated with a loss of inhibition, says Karen Trocki, a scientist with the Alcohol Research Group based in Oakland, California, and is a portal for women to either loosen up or become vulnerable. Alcohol gives men power either through aggression, she adds, or reinforcing masculinity through a casual, James Bond-like invulnerability to alcohol.

Trocki points to the five-yearly American National Alcohol Survey that shows drinking has been falling away since the 1980s as the age of the “five martini” lunch came to an end, but she suspects that, conversely, alcohol and drug use is currently becoming more prevalent on screen. “It seems that it is being used deliberately and ironically at the moment. It is that hipster kind of thing, portrayed in a certain way but to make the reverse point,” she says.

Satire though, is most often lost on the young.

The issue of censorship represents a pretty major snag in reforming Hollywood’s depiction of substance use.

In 2005, the State of California tried to ban the sale of certain violent video games to children without parental supervision, passing a law that ended up before the Supreme Court of the United States in November 2010, where it was eventually struck down.

“I was at that hearing, and I heard Justice Scalia compare Call of Duty to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. There’s just no comparison between those two things. But that’s where we are,” Strasburger says.

If you try and push Hollywood on its depictions of teen drinking in a movie like American Pie, it’ll hold up a movie like Schindler’s List to defend itself.

“Trying to control Hollywood is like trying to control honey slipping through your fingers,” Strasburger jokes. He’d like to see film students taught about the impacts of the depictions of substance use in movies, see the ratings system do a better job of reflecting drinking and smoking in its classifications, have the federal government fund comprehensive research, ban all tobacco advertising and stop alcohol ads from featuring “sexy beach babes and funny talking animals”.

Strasburger, though, doesn’t like his chances. “It’s like pissing in the wind, to be honest.”

Stanton Glantz doesn’t like the censorship counter-argument either.

“It’s an excuse. We’re not asking for government regulation. We’re asking the motion picture industry to update its rating system to take the science into account,” he says.

With cigarettes, at least, progress has been made. DVDs carry anti-smoking adverts, and under pressure, most major studios have certified that they don’t take money from cigarette companies for featuring their product. There’s more to do still, and Glantz would like to see the ratings board upgrade its stance from promising to “consider” smoking to giving all movies with smoking in them that is not for historical purposes an R-rating in the USA.

For now, deep reform is unlikely and policy is progressing slowly in trying to insulate young minds from these impacts. With screens in the household spreading out of the living room and into the bedroom in the form of televisions, tablet computers and smartphones, for parents, cutting off the source isn’t an option either.

Common Sense Media is a San Francisco non-profit that has been advocating for kids’ media issues for the past 10 years. Part of the company’s mission statement calls for “sanity, not censorship”, and a large part of its website is dedicated to a bank of 19,000 movie reviews that break down which movies are suitable for what ages and providing thematic talking points for parents to discuss a risqué film with their kids if they know they’ve seen it.

“We’re trying to help parents manage media decisions,” says Betsy Bozdech, Common Sense Media’s Executive Editor.

Bozdech says that, until a child is eight, a parent can more or less be their media gatekeeper. Between the ages of eight and 12, this gets trickier. But when they hit the teenage years and figure out computers, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

“I don’t know if you can negate the impact that Hollywood has, but the best that you can do is create an open dialogue,” Bozdech says.

Through this dialogue, she notes, a parent can ask a child how they felt something was portrayed and how it matches with reality and get them to come to the conclusion themselves that smokers aren’t that healthy in real life, that there are more negative consequences to drinking than the movies might suggest.

One thing Bozdech isn’t doing is waiting for Hollywood to change, when The Hangover and Harold and Kumar do infinitely better business than Requiem for a Dream or Leaving Las Vegas, there’s little incentive to do so.

“Hollywood is a business. There is a bottom line that is motivating these things.”

James Robinson is a San Francisco-based journalist.

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