From Silver Screen to Social Media
By Priyangwada Perera
How conscious are we of the use of tobacco and alcohol in media? Perhaps it doesn’t register that much in our eyes or we choose to casually ignore them when a scene including tobacco and alcohol use appear in media but these subtle suggesting can have some adverse long-term effects on viewers, especially on the younger crowd. In this light, a research report titled, A Scientific Investigation of Tobacco and Alcohol Portrayal in Sri Lankan Media and Its Public Health Implications was launched by the Centre for Combating Tobacco (CCT) to shed some light on the issue that often goes unnoticed and unaddressed.
The report launch recently took place at Cinnamon Grand and speaking at the launching ceremony the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Senior Prof. Vajira Dissanayake, spoke of how CCT have always tried to swim upstream. Had it been a fight with tobacco alone it would have been easier. However, tobacco companies are far shrewder than we imagine. Hence, CCT has been active and concentrating on a responsibility which most shy away from. In this challenging task, they are also supported by National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA), Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), World Health Organisation (WHO), Ministry of Health, and by a few non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
While we lament that the pandemic killed 2.79 million worldwide, in a year, tobacco kills 8 million and alcohol another 3 million. That is four times more than COVID deaths and unlike COVID deaths, these deaths happen every year without fail. It was way back in the 1950s that the experts found out tobacco use could be fatal. However, even 70 years later, the tobacco industry and related businesses continue to thrive. While the Government’s battle against COVID-19 continues, neither current regime nor any government has fought against tobacco or alcohol in an impactful manner. Why is that, they questioned. Referring to the current situation where so much focus is on coconut oil, they pointed out how we are reluctant and scared to buy it fearing it can contain carcinogens. Conversely, one is so bold and doesn’t think much about buying alcohol and tobacco. There is almost no fear associated with the consumption of alcohol and tobacco despite the grave health concerns it is sure to give.
Subtle promotional tactics
It was interesting to note what the Editor of CCT Dr. Manuja Perera had to say about tobacco and alcohol industries and their promotional tactics. It is all about advertising. However, we do not know how they cater to both users and non-users. They have approached new media such as Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes these pages and accounts are paid by these companies and sometimes even without a pay the promoting of alcohol and tobacco via social media can happen subconsciously. This apparently, is the only way both tobacco and alcohol survive in this ‘frowned-upon’ society. Sadly, the existing laws and regulations are not enough. The new NATA Act, covers prohibition of both tobacco and alcohol promotion and publicity in the media and even the internet is covered. They only have billboard advertising left. It applies to teledramas and the product promotion scenes as well. It is no joke that public health laws of a country are there to protect the citizens and future generations.
The influential director behind CCT Dr. Mahesh Rajasuriya explored whether the industry tactics work. From 2005-2018 consumption of cigarettes has decreased. So, in order to up their sales, the companies have done studies to reach their market again. The powerful multinational companies were conducting research to find the best ways to approach their customer base. They always target younger people since they are easy to manipulate. The studies were on how to catch teenagers and adolescents plus, how to keep them addicted. Tactics are amazing, starting from celebrities and sports stars it spreads to even Facebook and Instagram. However, Sri Lanka had done well.
Sri Lanka have done rather well
Dr. Rajasuriya recalled the days when they managed to reduce the number of people smoking. It was sheer hard work but a matter of doing the simple things right and with great dedication. Sri Lanka was doing well, in terms of discouraging smoking in public places. He recalled the sticker campaign where all the buses had a sticker saying, “You have a right to protest against smoking in the bus.” That sticker did wonders and actually gave people a voice. This is one of the major steps of protest and self awareness where one’s right to be tobacco-free are asserted.
The key feature in the battle against tobacco and alcohol is to recognise the network. “This is like an octopus: the same body with the hands of the monster reaching out to different places. Ultimately, all of it can be traced to one entity. The tobacco industry aims and recruits more and more to their consumer circle and special focus is on the teenagers. Their methods range from conventional, unconventional, new media as well as policy interference,” Dr. Rajasuriya said.
Re-establishing the goals of CCT, they came up with an interesting study of surveillance of tobacco and alcohol portrayed in the media. Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) holds governments accountable to safeguard public health policies and to take actions against tobacco industry interference. In 2016, they initiated monitoring of its implementation status via the Regional Tobacco Observatory Centre for Combating Tobacco. The report focused on many aspects of the industry. They diluted its content with presentation of research findings.
Indirect promotion is thriving
Dilani Hirimuthuge and the Institute of Policy Studies Sri Lanka (IPS) presented facts and examples on exposure of youth to tobacco advertisements and promotions via social media. They brought to light how indirect promotion is thriving. Global industry has chosen creative ways to appeal to children and young adults. Apart from encouragement, they go a step further by discouraging those who want to quit tobacco and alcohol consumption.
Dr. Lathika Athauda, Dr.Bimba Chandrasekara, Dr. Manuja Perera, M.I.P. Kumari, Dr. Roshan Jayawardhane, Dr. Lathika Athauda, and Dr. Rajasuriya did detailed analysis of their research findings on the portrayal of tobacco and alcohol in movies, television shows, Facebook, and YouTube.
They went by research findings and probed further into analysing certain teledramas, movies, music videos, and social media posts dissecting each scene to find out the portrayal of alcohol and tobacco in ways direct and indirect.
Director-Non Communicable Diseases Ministry of Health and Indigenous Medicine Dr.Vindya Kumarapeli and the Vice Chancellor of University of Colombo senior Prof. Chandrika Wijeratne spoke of how their predecessor, the great Prof. Carlo Fonseka and Porf. Nandadasa Kodagoda has contributed to keeping the university completely tobacco-free.
The mix method study observed the actual use of tobacco and alcohol, implied use, portrayal of intoxication, and display of brand names and paraphernalia which is mere product placement in a scene.
These also create and promote certain stereotypes where substance users are shown as modern, independent, liberal, and free-thinkers. Attitudes such as ‘drinkers are attractive’, ‘good girlfriends support boyfriends’ drinking,’ are some of the nuances implied.
Such women are more fashionable, attractive, and chick with a shade of feminism, making them appear more appealing to the audience.
Do not fall prey
Dr.Rajasuriya emphasised the importance of being alert. Do not fall prey. Stick to rules and regulations. We may be subconsciously promoting alcohol and tobacco via our personal Facebook posts and hence, be alert. Appealing to media organisations he said that the portrayal and promotion of tobacco and alcohol must stop. They need the support of the public to complain, report, and write where violations are happening. CCT app is there to facilitate and prompt action is taken and escalated. “Politicians should soon decide whether they are with the wellbeing of people or with the multinational companies,” the researchers said. Do not let yourself be fooled into death.
Creative Freedom Vs Alcohol and Tobacco Promotion
While subtle promotion of alcohol and tobacco in media is bad, there is also the question as to where the line should be drawn demarcating creative freedom and product promotion. We thought it only appropriate to speak to Susitha Wijemuni, the script writer of Thanamalwila Kollek.
“In our creations or pieces of literature, we take a slice of life. We portray a piece or a few portions of society. To be accused of ‘promoting tobacco’ is all too unfair and incorrect. For one thing, we never ask people to use any substance. However, to go with our plot, in the process of our story being told, this portrayal is not deliberately infused. In movies or teledramas even murders are shown. By the same logic, it should give rise to killing. What has to be perceived is how this is understood. Plus, there is a warning that goes along with such scenes cautioning of the adverse effects. If every channel was to sensor all these there would be no space for creativity.”
Wijemuni also asked how similar things were shown in films from times unknown without such an accusation. “Then this has to go further back to the times of Buddhist literature. Where the tusker Nalagiri was intoxicated, provoked, and brought to hurt Buddha would also be censored in that case,” he said. Wijemuni continued, “When we create a work of art, we deal with sexuality, alcohol, and exploitation all as a whole. There is a very thin possibility of segregating one from the other.”
Addressing the researchers Wijemuni said, “I would like to ask them to watch the episodes and along with the background, to focus on what is being said and discussed,” Wijemuni said that doctors should definitely warn people but implored on the importance of checking or proving whether they have taken money from companies for promoting substance use before pointing fingers at artists.
Wijemuni accepted the duty and right of the doctors to warn the public. “But then, why is there liquor being sold, why are cigarettes sold in supermarkets? Why is it possible to sell these in supermarkets?” he asked. Wijemuni said that it would be ideal if they can prove with evidence that artists have taken money and deliberately promoted it.
Former Chairman of ITN Saman Athudahetti said there is a thin line when speaking of the media and its portrayal promoting tobacco and alcohol. “Some years ago, On World No Tobacco Day, WHO released a television advertisement to all the countries, highlighting the adverse effects of smoking. This advertisement had world-famous celebrities, actors, and musicians who were either addicts or former smokers or drinkers. They had fallen sick and these worn out men were saying what happened to them was due to alcohol and smoking. Sri Lanka was also given the advertisement but Lankan television refused to show it saying it shows ‘cigarette smoking’,” he said with a chuckle. One has to bring laws after considering the final result. Is it about banning the ‘smoking image’ or is it the ‘impact’ we must discuss?