Question of the Week

February 19, 2008


Even those who are not fans of Hannah Montana have likely heard of Miley Cyrus. With tweens and teens making her new movie a multi-million dollar success, many are concerned that her actions will speak to her audience and set a dangerous example.

"In a blog item posted Monday [February 11, 2008], Consumer Reports magazine says 15-year-old superstar Miley Cyrus, who plays Hannah Montana on television, is seen in her new movie riding without a seat belt in the back seat of a Range Rover. So is her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, the Yonkers-based magazine says. ... The magazine says 65 percent of the 13- to 15-year-olds killed in auto accidents in 2006 were not wearing seat belts."

Almost two thirds of those in their early teens who died in car accidents were not wearing their seat belts. While many teens don't think it could ever happen to them, more people in this age range die in vehicle crashes than in any other way.

"* Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15 to 20 year olds in the United States. * In 2001, 5,341 teens were killed in passenger vehicles involved in motor vehicle crashes. Two thirds of those killed were not buckled up. ... * Research has shown that lap/shoulder belts, when used properly, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent. For light truck occupants, safety belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent and moderate-to-critical injury by 65 percent."

It is well accepted that seat belts save lives. When a well respected teen celebrity places herself in a position to model behavior that ignores this life-saving device, many fear that her fans will follow her example.

While some see these fears as an unfounded over-reaction, others know that it can serve as an advertisement for unsafe behavior. Placing products in movies and TV shows has long been shown as a good way to advertise desirable behavior and influence the decisions of tweens and teens. One well documented example of this is in the tobacco industry.

"The research reveals that children between the age of 10 and 14 who watched the highest amount of smoking in movies were nearly three times more likely to start smoking than those children who watched the least amount of smoking in movies. 'The data suggests that eliminating smoking in movies could reduce the number of young people starting smoking by half,' says [Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff]. ... 'I'm hoping the movie makers will use their influence to let young people know that smoking isn't cool, but that smoking kills," says [Assistant Attorney General Joel Ferre]."

It is the power of suggestion, and companies know it works well enough to pay millions of dollars to have their products seen in movies.

"The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement prohibited tobacco companies from advertising their product in markets that target people younger than 18 years of age. However, this ban has not sufficiently accomplished its intended goal of curtailing tobacco exposure in children. Another study found that 52 percent of teens with non-smoking parents started smoking because of exposure to smoking in movies."

The current buzz about a bad example being set in the movies has Miley Cyrus and her father riding without their seat belts. For years, various health organizations and prominent medical professionals have argued that movies should not be modeling tobacco use (as well as other unhealthy behaviors) for teens.

Additionally, movies have had a reputation for modeling a variety of negative behaviors. While evidence is there to support that seat belts save lives, and cigarettes kill, the entertainment industry is not showing what happens when someone is in a car accident without a seat belt or what's really in those cigarettes...

"Did you know that cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, many of which are poisonous? If you smoke, these are just some of the substances you're putting into your body:

  • Tar... is the main cause of lung and throat cancers in smokers.
  • Cyanide is used to make rat poison.
  • Formaldehyde is used to preserve dead bodies. Yuck!
  • Benzene is found in gasoline. * Acetone is the main ingredient in nail polish remover. * Ammonia is found in many disinfectants that you use to clean your house... * Nicotine is the drug in cigarette smoke that makes it hard to quit smoking. Nicotine is at least as addictive as heroin. It is also a deadly poison that was once used as an insecticide."

Questions of the Week: In what ways should the movie industry be expected to play a role in the promotion behaviors that lead to a safer and healthier lifestyle? In what ways is expecting them to do this unrealistic and/or inappropriate? Knowing that the characters in movies are not always making the healthiest or most responsible choices--and that companies are using product placement as advertising--what should you and your peers know about these tactics before going to see another feature film? What would be the best way to reach your peers with the information needed to view movies with a more discriminating eye?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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