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For Your Health: The hard truth about celebrities and smoking

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February 22, 2018 05:25 pm Updated: February 26, 2018 12:04 pm

The cult of celebrity is part of our society whether we like it or not.

We need only look at the millions who follow sports and entertainment idols on every medium — television, internet, magazines and film — to see that we cannot get enough of them. This infatuation with fame gives stars a strong hold on fans — especially in the age of social media and instant access.

Some are even called “influencers” because of the effect they have on popular culture. With so many followers, they reach multitudes of people who can be swayed by an Instagram post or Snapchat video. This has not gone unnoticed by marketing executives who know a key endorsement can be the difference between a brand taking off or fizzling out.

For example, Sugar Bear hair vitamins pays several celebrities (most notably the Kardashian-Jenner clan) to post testimonials on Instagram with pictures of their thick, smooth, silky hair. Product sales have increased astronomically as a result.

More subtle is the soft power stars have just by virtue of their popularity. A big name showing off a cute dress or a certain pair of boots can instantly make them stylish, trendy and a must-have for young fans.

Rihanna, on many occasions, has caused items of clothing to sell out and knock-offs to be produced almost immediately after she is seen wearing them.

But, it’s not just shopping habits and fashion statements that follow the stars — they can also influence behavior and attitudes, for better or worse. There are, unfortunately, too many entertainment personalities who post photos that make smoking appear to be part of an enviable lifestyle.

The actor Cole Sprouse, for example, has millions of combined Instagram “likes” for photos that show him smoking. One of his edgier captions reads “real men eat their cigarette butts.” This is exactly the message tobacco companies want impressionable young people (and potential customers) to hear: smoking is cool, adventurous, defiant, grown-up and rewarding.

Even when a star attempts to send a healthy message on social media, it can get lost or compromised when given in the wrong context or accompanied by an ambiguous image. Supermodel Kendell Jenner recently posted a picture of herself on Instagram holding a cigarette, with the caption “i don’t smoke.” Whatever her best intentions, Jenner was sending a mixed message.

With the caption, she is saying that she is setting a good example; with the photo, she is showing the allure of a beautiful woman with a cigarette in her hand. For the 3.2 million viewers who “liked” that photo, many of them young people, which will grab more attention — the health message or the glamorous photo?

Nowhere is glamour more on display than on the big screen. The essence of film is to dramatize and magnify life. Common sense tells us (and research confirms) no good can come of giving cigarettes a supporting role or even a cameo appearance in movies rated for an audience of adolescents who are primed for experimentation and wide-open to suggestion.

Sadly, smoking still appears in too many PG-13 films, including such blockbusters and award-winners as Wonder Woman, La La Land and Fences. (Thirteen is the average age of taking that first puff).

With a few nonfiction exceptions, tobacco use adds nothing to a film’s storyline or to making characters more genuine. If it wasn’t there, no one would notice.

Disney Studios, which values wholesomeness, has now accepted the wisdom of the principle of “out of sight, out of mind,” and recently announced it would no longer depict smoking in any of its films. Other major production companies are under pressure from parent groups and public health advocates to exercise similar corporate responsibility and to limit smoking to movies rated R.

There are many different reasons why the vast majority of people who smoke start in their teens; celebrity influence is only one of them. Whatever the cause, the consequences are the same. The earlier a person starts, the harder it is to quit because of changes nicotine makes in the developing brain, the longer one smokes and the higher the probability it will cause serious harm to health.

These are the hard truths that movies never show and stars don’t talk about on Instagram.