Alcohol Movie Rating Could Help with Underage Drinking

Movies showing underage drinking, binge drinking, alcohol abuse, or drinking and driving can influence adolescent behavior. Should they be R-rated?

Focus article photo

Studies show that movies influence smoking and drinking during adolescence. When a 1998 agreement enforced by the State Attorneys General regulated cigarette brand placements in movies, youth tobacco use rates declined. But alcohol placement is found increasingly in movies rated for ages as young as 13, Norris Cotton Cancer Center researchers report in "Trends in Tobacco and Alcohol Brand Placements in Popular US movies, 1996 through 2009."

The study, recently published in JAMA Pediatrics, suggests that movies making unsafe drinking seem acceptable should be rated, just like movies containing profanity, violence, sex, or violence.

Tobacco and Alcohol in movies influences adolescent behavior

A 2012 Surgeon General's report noted that the initiation of smoking in adolescents is linked to depictions of smoking in movies. Studies also show that exposure to movie imagery of alcohol is also harmful to children.

Children's exposure to movie imagery of alcohol is associated with early onset of drinking and alcohol abuse, notes James Sargent, MD, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Dr. Sargent: Alcohol and the Movies.

The most recent NCCC study, led by Elaina Bergamini, examined recent trends for tobacco and alcohol use in movies before and after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), which ended payments for tobacco brand placements in films.

Drinking in movies rated for young people increases

Elaina Bergamini, MS

Researchers watched the top 100 box office releases of each year between 1996 and 2009 and recorded when a movie character was shown using or handling tobacco or alcohol, and when a particular brand was pictured. They found that after the MSA was implemented tobacco brand placements in movies declined by 7 percent per year while alcohol brand placement, subject only to industry self-regulation, was found increasingly in movies rated for ages as young as 13.

"If we learned anything from the trends in tobacco placement, it is that self-regulation by the industry promoting their brands has little to no impact on actual brand placement because the rewards for such a marketing strategy are great," says Bergamini. "Regulatory 'teeth' have the only demonstrable impact on the placement of brands in movies."

Bergamini and her colleagues argue that since we know smoking and drinking in films can negatively impact adolescent behavior, movies that show drinking in contexts that increase curiosity or acceptability of unsafe drinking—underage drinking, binge drinking, alcohol abuse, or drinking and driving—should be R-rated.

Study authors are Elaina Bergamini, MS; Eugene Demidenko, PhD; James D. Sargent, MD. This study was supported by grants CA 077026 and AA 015591 from the National Institutes of Health.

June 24, 2013