Blowing Smoke: Can Media Literacy Impact Youth Smoking?

Have you noticed lately, the increased number of movie characters lighting up on screen? Even though cigarette advertising on television has long ago been prohibited, and the Surgeon General's warnings about the dangers of tobacco use are clearly to be seen everywhere from billboards to posters and on cigarette packs, there is still lots of smoking in movies, especially those popular with youth. It follows that efforts to discourage young people from smoking have recently begun to focus on these films and on their influence on youth.


Hollywood Can't Kick the Habit
Tobacco use in youth-oriented movies increased in the 1990's and is prevalent today especially in movies popular with youth. A 1999 Office of National Drug Control Policy study of the 200 most popular video rentals in 1996 and 1997 revealed that 89 percent had smoking in them. Another study, at Dartmouth Medical School showed this percentage varied between 88 percent and 92 percent in the top 25 box-office films since 1995. Since it has been found that perceived social norms and modeling by admired others are important predictors of alcohol and drug use it is particularly disturbing that 74 percent of the lead characters in the top 50 movies from 1997 to 1998 used tobacco.


The Media Literacy-Prevention Link
To help youth recognize and analyze the media messages that normalize and glamorize tobacco use, prevention efforts have begun to incorporate media literacy in the armamentarium of prevention strategies. For example, in the introduction to a special 1998 supplement of the Weekly Reader, on "Media Literacy as a Substance Abuse Prevention Strategy," former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala stated, "Media literacy … can help your students interpret confusing messages about tobacco, alcohol, and drugs"


The conceptual basis for this is that media literacy involves youth in a critical examination of media messages that influence their perception as well as their own practices, and gives them the skills to make better-informed decisions about their health behaviors. The same special supplement of the Weekly reader also stated that, "It is no secret that young people are exposed to a barrage of pro-use messages for both alcohol and tobacco. However, teaching your students to be critical thinkers about media messages can help them understand the risks associated with these substances and resist the temptation to become users."


Yet the research evidence that supports this contention is sadly lacking. Most studies that have been done involve small populations, are short term, and lack scientific rigor. The study having the most credibility to date is a study of the effects of general and alcohol-specific media literacy training on children's decision-making about alcohol which found that "children's decisions about media messages appear to have important implications for their decisions about risky behaviors, such as underage drinking of alcoholic beverages".


The Blowing Smoke Project - a New Study
Over a period of two years in 1999 and 2000, the Blowing Smoke Project created and evaluated a grade 6-8 curriculum for analyzing messages about tobacco use in movies. Blowing Smoke is a media-literacy-based curriculum for tobacco use prevention that addresses the influence of tobacco use in movies popular with youth.


During 1999, with funding from the Arizona Department of Health Services, Tobacco Educations and Prevention Program, the Blowing Smoke Project at the University of Arizona recruited, trained, and worked with a team of 30 talented youth ages 11 to 16. They designed most of the activities that were included in the curriculum, keeping in mind how they and their peers would like to learn about tobacco use in the movies. They also contributed to the writing, production, editing, and talent for the accompanying video. As much as possible, the Blowing Smoke curriculum was "designed by kids for kids."


Extensive pilot-testing, revision, and research evaluation of the curriculum took place in 2000, resulting in a curriculum of five lessons that is designed to:

1. Expose and oppose the gratuitous use of tobacco in movies popular with youth.
2. Give students media literacy skills to resist the influence of tobacco use in film and to advocate for a more realistic portrayal of smoking in movies.

The final evaluation research phase of Blowing Smoke Project took place from August through December 2000. Eight Arizona middle schools from urban and rural settings in the vicinities of Tucson and Phoenix took part in the evaluation-five implementation schools and three comparison schools. Subject areas of the teachers implementing the curriculum included social studies, language arts, life skills, and health.


Fifteen-question pre/post-tests were administered four weeks apart to 295 seventh-grade students in the implementation schools and 294 seventh-grade students in the comparison schools, for a total of 589 students. In implementation schools the tests were administered three weeks prior to curriculum implementation and immediately following completion of the curriculum. The pre/post-test sought to establish the effectiveness of the curriculum on three measures:

1. Increased knowledge of tobacco product placement in film.
2. Increased awareness of the portrayal of tobacco use in film.
3. Increased negative attitudes toward the use of tobacco in film.

Findings Strengthen the Link
This evaluation demonstrated that the Blowing Smoke curriculum is effective in changing youth knowledge, awareness, and attitudes regarding tobacco use in the movies. Small but significant increases on all three measures were demonstrated by the implementation group, while there was no change in the comparison group. Based upon five-point scales for each measure, the level of change was .5 in both knowledge and awareness (p<.001) and .1 in attitudes (p<.05). R a The complete research evaluation report can be seen at complete researc...


The results documented through this research establish the efficacy of the Blowing Smoke curriculum as a media literacy and tobacco prevention curriculum, and media literacy education as a prevention strategy. In addition, analysis of the students' baseline levels regarding the three evaluation measures revealed that the need for media literacy education in the area of tobacco use prevention is greater than the need for health and other facts about tobacco use.


A Process-Not a Product
Media literacy is a critical thinking life skill that requires significant learning and practice time in order to achieve mastery. The Blowing Smoke core curriculum is five class periods in length, with an optional videotaping lesson and numerous recommended learning and practice activities that can be done throughout the school year. The post-test measures used in this evaluation do not reflect the increased skills that would result from these additional learning and practice opportunities.


Another measurement six months after the completion of the core curriculum would be helpful to determine any increase in media literacy skills attributable to practice over time. Post-testing at six months after implementation could also test for skills transference to subjects other than tobacco use in film. Ongoing qualitative and quantitative evaluation of the curriculum and its delivery is expected to elucidate and expand upon the current findings.


- By Lynda Bergsma, PhD

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