Bollywood cinema glamourises tobacco use, says WHO study

A recent study commissioned by the World Health Organisation reveals that an overwhelming majority of Hindi films depict some form of tobacco use, and that three-fourths of top-rated films send out a message to the youth that smoking is a trendy lifestyle option

"Smoking in the movies is a powerful motivation for young people to copy their cine screen idols" cautions Dr Uton Muchtar Rafei, Regional Director for the World Health Organisation South-East Asia Region.

Referring to the findings of a WHO supported study "Bollywood: Victim or Ally?" - A portrayal of tobacco in Hindi cinema, Dr Uton underlined the fact that given the popularity of Bollywood films in other countries of the South Asian subcontinent, and in the Middle East and Africa, these films are sending out a strong pro-smoking message to millions of impressionable youth across the globe..

"The cine industry has a responsibility to the youth, their biggest clientele, and must examine its own record in promoting tobacco use, and institute mechanisms to prevent misuse of the medium in promoting tobacco", said Dr Uton.

The WHO study reveals that around 80% of the over 400 films studied show some form of tobacco use. According to Ms Ambika Srivastava, President, Strategic Mediawork who conducted the study on behalf of WHO, "It is estimated that in India alone, 15 million people see Indian films everyday. Around 76% of the top-rated films portray smoking as the "cool" thing to do. Whether it is done consciously at the behest of the tobacco industry or unwittingly, Bollywood cannot afford to ignore its potential in curbing the tobacco epidemic any further, said Ms Srivastava.

The significance of this study lies in the fact that it establishes linkages between portrayal of tobacco in films and its implications for the youth. Focus group discussions with young people showed the strong influence on life styles, which they emulate from films.

Interestingly, while smoking is still used to portray rebellion, smoking to demonstrate an assertive and independent mindset have increased. In the early years of cinema, it was the "villain" character that was shown smoking. Today, 50% of tobacco usage incidents are depicted by the "good" characters.

According to Dr S.J. Habayeb, WHO Country Representative to India: "the glamorization of smoking by Indian film stars, both on and off the screen, unfortunately, generates pro-tobacco cues in the audiences. He said the study reveals a growing trend in the portrayal of smoking in films as a trendy and healthy lifestyle option. "This is especially worrisome in this country where over 800,000 people die annually due to tobacco related diseases. Besides, the number of people who suffer from tobacco-related illness is even higher."

Dr Habayeb said that it is noteworthy and commendable that the Government of India is pursuing various efforts to reduce tobacco use. Already, tobacco advertising is banned in state-sponsored electronic media, and on cable TV channels in the country. Further, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has set up a specialized Tobacco control cell in collaboration with the WHO Country Office to assist in coordinating related government efforts.

Globally, the tobacco epidemic now kills some 5 million people per year, and it is communicated through advertising, sponsorship and promotion. Just this month, WHO's 192 member states approved the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, WHO's first treaty in the area of health. The FCTC's global rules will include marketing, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products.

WHO is globally calling on the Indian film industry to stop promoting a product that kills every second regular user. WHO is making recommendations for the film industry to self-regulate itself regarding portrayal of tobacco use.