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Films must curb depiction of alcohol and tobacco

The fact that alcohol consumption is responsible for nearly three million deaths in a year, linked to about 200 diseases and health problems as well as widely recognized as an important cause of crime and serious social problems are well-known.


The fact that alcohol consumption is responsible for nearly three million deaths in a year, linked to about 200 diseases and health problems as well as widely recognized as an important cause of crime and serious social problems are well-known. As a result, there are several restrictions in various parts of the world on the direct promotion of alcohol, particularly among younger consumers. 

However, the nearly $1500 billion global alcohol industry has been quick to find other ways of increasing its sales. Surrogate advertising is one such form, but this can sometimes become controversial. In these circumstances, if some films help in the promotion of alcohol in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways then of course the alcohol industry would be very happy about this. 

There are at least two aspects of this issue. The first is to explore the extent to which films help to increase alcohol consumption. The second aspect is the more difficult question of whether this happens coincidentally/unintentionally as a result of the storyline and characters, or whether the alcohol industry may be more actively involved in promoting certain depictions. 

To take up the first question, there is increasing evidence that films are helping to increase alcohol consumption in various parts of the world. The Pediatrics Journal in the UK published a longitudinal study based on 5,163 teenagers aged 15 years. Those who were exposed to most movie exposure influences regarding alcohol consumption were 20 per cent more likely to have consumed liquor, 70 per cent more likely to binge drink, and more than twice as likely to consume more than one drink in a week, as well as suffer from alcohol-related problems. 

According to a study of trends in Bollywood movies published in PLOS 

journal, based on an analysis of 300 films during the period 1994-2013, 93 per cent of films had at least one episode of liquor consumption and 70 per cent had at least one episode of tobacco consumption. 

In several films, there is a frequent depiction of liquor consumption. Thus, exposure to films in general results in acceptance of liquor consumption as a routine activity. While this consumption is depicted as a routine activity, various harmful effects including hangovers and headaches, mishaps and quarrels (not to mention longer-term health, economic and social problems) are often not shown, leading to more unquestioning acceptance of this ‘routine’. 

What is more, the consumption of liquor is depicted sometimes in an attractive setting. The parties where liquor is being plentifully served and consumed are presented as a part of a desirable lifestyle. Similarly, while serving guests or while dating and in other happy situations, alcohol is increasingly presented as something which adds to high feelings. It is presented as a liberating influence, particularly for the very young and increasingly for women as well. To miss alcohol is to miss something very essential, it is suggested. 

On the other hand, there is a different kind of depiction also – of the hero or some other attractive character, someone who is the object of our sympathy in the film, drowning his sorrows by drinking heavily. This Devdas image can take several forms 

and various popular actors may be identified with these. 

Identification of liquor consumption with popular stars, not just men but also women, is an important part of the depiction of consumption of liquor in popular films. It is no less important to create songs and dances which celebrate liquor either as the greatest symbol of high feelings (Masti) or as the best means of drowning sorrow. There is even a song in which a dancer is seen per- forming inside a giant alcohol bottle. 

The association of alcohol with seduction and seductive dances and songs are frequent in Hindi films. Songs like Jhoom Barabar Jhoom Sharabi (from 5 Rifles) are popular with drinkers and many versions of this song are now available. There is 

even a popular song which extols liquor as perhaps the best thing in the world, the best gift of nature (Choo lene do najuk hontho ko, from Kaajal), also saying that it is just the habit of the world to criticise good things, so ignore all this criticism and just drink. 

All this leads to popular films serving as a convenient vehicle for the promotion of alcohol in many ways. However, the question remains whether this is just incidental or whether the liquor industry is more actively involved in this. Of course, in some countries where liquor companies directly sponsor films the link can be more clearly seen. When film stars are hired for surrogate advertising, then too, a link is visible. In some films, one can see that the camera picks up clearly the label of the liquor brand which is being served. Elsewhere it is more difficult to find the links, but this does not mean that such links do not exist. 

In a similar vein, many popular films have promoted the consumption of tobacco in various forms. Several leading film stars of India have been paid millions for surrogate advertising of tobacco, particularly smokeless tobacco, even though it is the leading cause of oral cancer in India. 

Tragically some of the most talented filmmakers, actors and other artists have died early due to excessive consumption of liquor and tobacco. For this reason and of course in the larger public interest, one expects the film industry to be more considerate and to avoid undue promotion of liquor and tobacco. Of course, when the story demands the use of liquor or tobacco, it will remain in films, and so censorship can never be an answer. Perhaps there can be a system of self-regulation, to ensure that undue promotion of liquor, tobacco and other forms of substance abuse can be avoided. 

(The writer has been involved with several social movements. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Navjeevan and Man over Machine.)