Media Representations of Drinking, Drug Use, and Smoking

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Media Representations of Drinking, Drug Use, and Smoking

Researchers study how drugs, alcohol, and tobacco are portrayed on television, in movies, in songs, and in other forms of media. According to some studies, media containing scenes or conversations about these substances can affect drinking, smoking, and illicit drug use, especially among children and young adults. Some organizations are trying to reduce or eliminate the appearance of these substances in the media. They also encourage actors, musicians, writers, and producers to portray substance use in a realistic—not a glamorous—way.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs in Movies

In 1999 a research and advocacy organization called Mediascope completed a study about substance use in movies and music. Mediascope researchers wanted to compare the public's impression of how often alcohol, drugs, and tobacco were mentioned or seen in movies and music to the actual number of times these substances appeared in these media. The study looked at how often alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs appeared in the 200 most popular movie rentals and 1,000 most popular songs from 1996 to 1997. It also examined how the substances were portrayed in each song or movie.

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The study found that 98 percent of the 200 movies showed or mentioned alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. Alcohol appeared most often, followed by tobacco. Illicit drug use appeared in only 22 percent of the movies. Statements suggesting that substance use was wrong or should be avoided were found in 31 percent of the movies in the study. Statements suggesting that substance use was good, or something that the actors wanted, appeared in 29 percent of the movies. Most of these positive statements were about alcohol. The Mediascope group found that most movies did not show the long-term consequences of drinking, smoking, or drug use. In many cases, the movies did not explain why the adult or young adult characters were using these substances.

Alcohol and tobacco were associated with different kinds of situations in the movies. Alcohol often played a part in humorous scenes, party scenes, or scenes associated with wealth and luxury. A smaller percentage of scenes showed alcohol and some sort of risky behavior, such as crime, violence, or driving a car. Nearly 20 percent of the movie scenes with alcohol also involved sexual activity. The study also found that few young adult characters were shown using substances by themselves.

Smoking is associated with more negative activities than drinking in movies, according to the study. It is linked more often to crime and violence, and less often with wealth, parties, or humor. The Mediascope researchers also discovered that Budweiser drinks and Marlboro cigarettes were the most popular brands shown in the movies. Each of these brands appeared five times more than any other brand.

Illicit drugs appeared less often than alcohol and tobacco in the movies. Of all these drugs, marijuana was the most popular. It appeared in 57 percent of all drug scenes. Heroin and other opiates , and powdered cocaine followed marijuana as the next most popular movie drugs. Other drugs such as crank, crack, and LSD appeared less often.

Overall, more white than African-American characters used illicit drugs in the movies surveyed. However, when the fact that fewer African Americans appeared in these movies was taken into account, African-American characters' proportional drug use was higher than among white characters.

The study showed that most movie drug scenes do not emphasize that drugs are illegal. Only 28 percent of these scenes showed drugs as part of a criminal or violent activity. Just as with alcohol and tobacco, most movies do not show the long-term consequences or reasons for illicit drug use.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs in Music

The 1999 Mediascope study also looked at substance use in several types of popular music, including Top 40, country, rap, alternative rock, and heavy metal. Twenty-seven percent of the songs studied by the researchers directly mentioned alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs. Whereas alcohol was shown most often in movies, illicit drugs appeared most often in these songs. Alcohol references came in a close second, followed by few tobacco references. The researchers also noticed that drug-related phrases, such as "I'm high on you," were often in songs even where drugs were not mentioned specifically.

Substances appeared in 74 percent of all rap songs studied, followed by 20 percent of Top 40, 20 percent of alternative rock, 20 percent of country, and 12 percent of heavy metal songs. Rap contained the most lyrics about illicit drugs (63 percent of all rap songs) and alcohol (47 percent of songs). Alternative rock, country, and Top 40 music contained similar amounts of lyrics about alcohol, while heavy metal songs mentioned alcohol the least. Only one country song in the survey mentioned illicit drugs.

Marijuana was the drug that appeared most often in these songs, with other references to crack and powdered cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogens . In songs with references to illicit drugs, drug use was associated most often with sexual or romantic activity, wealth or luxury, and crime and violence. Songs with alcohol references also linked drinking with sex and romance, wealth, crime, and power. Alcohol brand names were mentioned in 30 percent of the songs studied. Some of the brands mentioned included Remy Martin, Hennessy, and Dom Perignon.

Very few of the songs contained antidrug messages, messages about drug treatment, or consequences of substance use. Just as with the movies surveyed, most song lyrics did not provide any clues about why the substance users were drinking, smoking, or using drugs.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs on Television

In 2000 Mediascope followed up its study of substance use in movies and music with a look at drugs, alcohol, and tobacco on prime-time television. The study covered several episodes from forty-two situation comedy and drama shows in the fall 1998–1999 television season. The shows studied by the researchers included the twenty most popular shows among teenagers and among adults. The study also included the twenty most popular shows for African-American teens, Hispanic teens, and white teens.

Alcohol was seen or mentioned most often on television, appearing in 77 percent of the shows in the study. Tobacco appeared in 22 percent of all shows. Illicit drugs appeared in 20 percent of all episodes. Of all substances, alcohol was portrayed in the most positive way on television, often associated with humor. Scenes and conversations about tobacco use were mostly negative. Alcohol use appeared in many shows popular with teenagers. However, teenage drinkers or smokers seldom appeared on these shows.

There were few scenes of illicit drug use among the shows in the study. Most episodes containing scenes of drug use linked the drug use to negative consequences, unlike in the movies. The television shows also contained fewer portrayals of illicit drugs and alcohol, and much less mention or scenes of tobacco, than in movies.

The study found few differences in substance use among the shows most popular with different teen ethnic groups. In general, episodes popular with African-American teens showed less smoking. Shows popular with white teens contained more conversations about heavy drinking. The frequency of illicit drug use was very similar in shows popular with African-American, Hispanic, and white teens. Mediascope's research revealed that 59 percent of all commercials shown during shows popular with teens contained alcohol. Only 9 percent of those commercials directly promoted an alcohol product; the rest showed alcohol in advertising for things like hotels, restaurants, and credit cards.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs in Other Media

Alcohol, drug, and tobacco use in magazines, comic books, music videos, and video games has not been studied as much as in other forms of media. One study, in 1994, examined alcohol and tobacco use in music videos shown on several television channels, including MTV, VH1, CMT, and BET. The study found that tobacco was seen most often on MTV. Alcohol appeared almost equally across all the channels. The study also found that tobacco and alcohol use appeared most often in rap videos. In most cases, the lead singer or musician in the video was the one shown drinking or smoking.

In the case of video games, researchers who study violence in these games also look at how often drugs are shown or mentioned. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is one organization that provides information on substance use in video games, online games, and some web sites.

Changing Media Portrayals of Substance Use

Several organizations work to change how drugs, alcohol, and tobacco are portrayed in the media. These groups encourage actors, musicians, writers, and other artists to work toward more realistic portrayals of substance use in their particular type of media. Some organizations support media with an antidrug message. These groups usually believe that the media has a powerful influence on drinking, smoking, and drug use among young people.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is probably the largest and best-known of these types of groups. The ONDCP is a national government agency that was created to stop illicit drug sales and use in the United States. One of the goals of the ONDCP is to make sure that substance use is portrayed in a realistic way in the media. As part of that goal, the ONDCP helped pay for the Mediascope studies on television, music, and movies.

See Organizations of Interest at the back of Volume 2 for address, telephone, and URL.

In 1998, this government group started a program called the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. The Media Campaign provides information about illicit drugs to television and movie writers. It also organizes discussions between these writers and experts on drug use. In some cases, the Media Campaign partners directly with a company to create media with a particular portrayal of substance use. For instance, the campaign works with Marvel Comics to create a special Spider Man comic book series designed to teach antidrug messages to youth.

Advertising plays a large part in the Media Campaign program. The Media Campaign pays for antidrug ads shown on television, in movie theaters, in magazines, and advertising banners on web sites. These media outlets must match each ad that the campaign buys with a service that costs as much as the ad itself. These services include things like other advertisements, or sponsorship of a community event that supports the campaign's goals. In some cases, media companies may count television episodes or magazine articles with an antidrug message as part of their matching service.

The Media Campaign uses media to send its own message about drugs directly to young people and their parents. For instance, the Media Campaign has two web sites ( and that talk about different drugs and that encourage youths to stay away from drug use. These web sites mix information with entertainment, such as online games, cartoons, and stories. The Media Campaign sends out drug information and advertisements in many languages.

Mediascope also works to change media portrayals of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Along with its research, Mediascope offers advice to the creative artists who produce music, movies, and television. It suggests ways that these artists can show or speak about substance use responsibly, especially in media directed at children and teens. It also provides information about substance use in the media to parents, teachers, reporters, and politicians.

The Entertainment Industries Council (EIC) is another group that promotes responsible portrayals of substance use. The EIC is made up of people who work in television, movies, and music. The group looks for ways that the entertainment industry can help solve problems like drug abuse, along with other problems such as violence, gun and traffic safety, and health issues.

One of the EIC's best-known programs is the Prism Awards. The Prism Awards recognize media that portray substance use and addiction in an accurate way. Winners receive awards in many categories, including television primetime comedies or dramas, talk shows, children's shows, soap operas, news specials, movies, comic books, songs and music videos, web sites, and community service. Well-known actors and musicians present the awards each year on a televised show.

EIC sponsors these awards with its partners, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The National Institute of Drug Abuse is the main center of drug abuse and addiction studies in the world. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a philanthropy that gives money to organizations or researchers working on health issues.

see also Advertising and the Alcohol Industry; Advertising and the Tobacco Industry; Prevention; Prevention Programs.


Filmmakers have struggled with how to show drug use, striving neither to hide nor to glorify the dark sides of drug use. Here are a few movies that portray drug use.

Traffic (2000) looks at the U.S. drug scene, from police officers to dealers and users. One teenager's downfall is shown as a struggle against her family. We see the consequences of her growing addiction, especially her inability to pay for drugs, and, eventually, her search for recovery.

Requiem for a Dream (2000) is a story of four individuals who turned into addicts. The film illustrates how drugs can take over the lives of anyone, from young adults to parents, and how addicts desperately search for something worthwhile in those substances.

Trainspotting (1996) takes an explicit look at Scottish teens who use heroin and the costs of their drug abuse, both to their personal relationships and their own health. One user fights peer pressure and his own growing physical dependence to remain drug-free.

The Basketball Diaries (1995) follows a high school basketball star as he becomes addicted to heroin and his life spins out of control. He eventually ends up on the streets, earning money any way he can to feed his addiction.

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Media Representations of Drinking, Drug Use, and Smoking

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