This afternoon, Dylan Matthews reported on some recent research that looked at the depiction of smoking and drinking in the movies. Since 1998 when cigarette companies were forbidden to purchase product placement in movies, smoking in films has gone down dramatically (exponentially, actually). But drinking in films has been the same as it ever was. That’s to be expected. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen the country turn against smoking. There has been no such change with drinking.
There is one interesting change at the movies: there’s more drinking in films that kids can see: G, PG, and PG-13. The data are pretty noisy, but the increase is sharp. There could be a lot of reasons for that. In fact, it occurs to me that it could be an artifact of the research. For example, if there is a trend toward making more PG-13 films, that could explain it. I don’t recall seeing cans of Budweiser in G rated films. (Of course, I don’t know much about this; the four films I have seen recently that I thought were G were all PG.) But it could be that alcohol producers are trying to advertise to kids.
What bothered me in Matthews’ article was the discussion that maybe we should ban product placement of alcohol in movies. I think that cigarettes and alcohol are distinctly different. Cigarettes have basically no up side; they get you a little high, they pollute the air, and they kill you. Alcohol as it is consumed by the vast majority of people is at worst harmless and very likely healthful. There’s no doubt that alcohol kills a whole lot of people and otherwise harms them. But the picture is complicated in ways that it just isn’t with cigarettes.
I’m also concerned about this whole idea that we should go around banning everything that is bad for us. It’s not that I think it is a slippery slope. In fact, it is the fact that I don’t think it is a slippery slope that I feel I must make a strand here. There are lots of ways that we can mitigate the harm caused by alcohol. But I don’t think kids seeing adults drinking in a normal way is bad; in fact, it might be good. That isn’t true of kids seeing movie stars smoking.