Nearly half of animated, G-rated, theatrical releases exhibit alcohol and tobacco use while failing to send messages about long-term effects, according to a new study.

Kimberly Thompson and Fumie Yokota of Harvard’s School of Public Health reported these findings in the June issue of Pediatrics. They initially hypothesized that depictions of alcohol and tobacco use had increased over time, but found these depictions actually decreased.
The authors studied animated G-rated movies that were first released in theaters, in English, at least 60 minutes long and accessible for home viewing. The parameters yielded 81 movies for scrutiny.
“An incident of exposure to alcohol, tobacco, or other illicit drug-like substance,” they wrote, “was defined as each instance of continuous display of an alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drug product on screen.”
The authors recorded the duration of the incident, the type of substance, which character(s) used the substance, the type of character (i.e. positive or negative), any effect on the character and any health message verbally espoused.
Of the 81 films studied, 38 displayed alcohol use on average of 42 seconds. Fifteen of these 38 films showed some sort of effect on the character. Incidentally, the main types of alcohol used were wine (39 percent) and beer (24 percent).
“None of the films, however, contained a health message about the use of alcohol,” they wrote.
As for tobacco, 35 of the 81 films displayed tobacco use on average of 2.1 minutes.
Thirteen of these 35 films showed characters coughing, turning green or having some other adverse reaction to smoking. In “Happily Ever After” (1990) one character says to another, “You’ve gotta stop smoking. It’s going to kill you!” It is the only film that offered a health message about the negative effect of smoking.
No films contained illicit drug use, though three films showed at least one character “consuming a magical food, pill, or potion that transfigured them.”
The authors also observed nightclub or bar scenes in 13 of the movies, and noted that such scenes were more likely to exhibit alcohol and tobacco use. Movies containing such scenes included “Pinocchio” (1940), “An American Tail” (1986), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and “A Bug’s Life” (1998).
Furthermore, “the high incidence of violent acts occurring in the bar and nightclub scenes suggests that bars are exciting and dangerous places.”
The findings do indicate a downward trend in the depiction of alcohol and drug use. The earliest ten films studied, released from 1937 to 1951, exhibited about six and one-half minutes of alcohol exposure cumulatively, and almost 26 minutes of tobacco exposure cumulatively.
Disney’s “Pinocchio” (1940), for example, exhibited beer, spirits, wine, a cigar and a pipe. However, it also showed physical effects of alcohol and tobacco. “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) showed a cigar, a pipe, and other tobacco products for over five minutes, while also showing physical effects.
The ten most recent films studied, released from 1998 to 2000, displayed 32 cumulative seconds of alcohol exposure and only eight cumulative seconds of tobacco exposure.
Most of the exposure occurred in “Tarzan” (1999), which displayed wine for 25 seconds and a pipe for eight seconds.
Neither the wildly popular “Toy Story 2” (1999) nor its 1995 predecessor displayed any alcohol or tobacco use.
But in the constellation of G-rated animated features available for home viewing, nearly half depict alcohol and tobacco use while avoiding mention of their long-term effects.
Thompson and Yokota echoed recent recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics for parental participation, “such as regular coviewing and content discussion, as well as teaching critical viewing skills.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.

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