Alt-Health: How Does Film Affect Health?

filmWhen I was a young girl, the movies made quite an impression on my malleable mind. I would walk out of a spy flick feeling suave and sophisticated, and if my sister suggested we stop for ice cream on the way home, I would sit in the car and dream while she and my dad went in for sundaes, because, after all, spies are too cool to go to Friendly’s. I would see emotional young performers in films have temper tantrums and flounce out of rooms, and I couldn’t wait to grow up and throw my own fits if grown-ups suggested I do anything practical with my life.

Movies have always been a form of entertainment, adventure and sometimes a good scare. But they are really far more than that. We look to celebrities as role models and to their scripts as road maps for relationships, ethics and style. Star’s wardrobes, bling and social lives are given the same importance in the news as world summit meetings and the war in the mideast.

This it made me wonder — if movies have that much influence, could they actually have an effect on the public’s health? The answer, according to research, is YES. Life does imitate art, and unfortunately, in the art of film, a lot of the leading characters have some really bad habits that have impacted us all in a negative way.

Smoking In The Movies

It is a signature scene from every film noir — the husky-voiced femme fatale with her face half in shadow, tendrils of smoke from her elegantly held cigarette spiraling up through a dim shaft of light. Movies made smoking seem sultry and sexy. They were the best advertising vehicle that the tobacco industry ever had. But did the American public fall for the trick?

Doctors from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire recently examined the connection between movie smoking exposure (MSE) and adolescent smoking. They found that the more smoking adolescents saw, the more they were likely to smoke. The less they saw, the less likely. Their conclusion went so far as to say that teen smoking would be reduced by 18% if smoking in PG-13 movies was largely eliminated.

Smoking has an especially hazardous trickle-down effect on the population. Despite evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke dropped by half between 1999 and 2012, it is still credited with killing more than 41,000 Americans a year from lung cancer and heart disease. Sadly, it also causes an estimated 400 deaths from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). According to Dr. Tom Frieden from the Center for Disease Control, “these deaths are entirely preventable … the best way to reduce the harms from secondhand smoke is to reduce smoking.”

Unfortunately movies that glorify smoking seem to be doing everything in their power to encourage us to start.

Beauty and Barfing and the Movies

They’re stunning, aren’t they? Those slender, polished and perfect stars who somehow make us believe that they are real people when they breathe life into their roles. But these elite individuals work with trainers and nutritional coaches and resort to massage, liposuction and drugs. The reed thinness of many leading ladies is not a natural thing.

Yet millions of women believe the lie. The pressure in our culture to be thin is overwhelming and it starts early. In studies, girls as young as 3 and 6 said they were conscious of their weight. We measure ourselves against the Beautiful People and find ourselves lacking. In a People Magazine survey, 80% of the female readers who responded reported that the women they saw in movies made them feel bad about themselves.

Movie stars have gotten even thinner in recent years. Allure magazine quoted actress Elizabeth Hurley as saying, “I’ve always thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I’d kill myself if I was that fat.” It is not surprising that modern starlets are constantly confessing their food disorders in the tabloids. Self-imposed starvation has been given a certain glamour by the media that is not lost on women in the general population. For some girls, it can literally be a death sentence. Eating disorders have a higher mortality rate than any other psychiatric illness. As many as 20% of those who suffer from anorexia will die prematurely from complications related to their condition.

Can we really blame the movies for the perception that women have about their own bodies? Well, the rate of eating disorders in Fiji surged following the introduction of Western television programming. You may draw your own conclusions.

But the next time you go to the movies, notice the product placement and atmospheric fog from smoldering butts. Take note that someone is trying to hijack your entertainment time in order to shove their product or image down your throat. My suggestion to you is just say no.