Cartoon characters who smoke and drink are becoming less common, but a new study says a kid needn't look far to find tobacco and alcohol use in animated movies - and typically with no health consequences.
A sample of G-rated feature films released between 1937 and 2000 shows that almost half depict at least a few seconds - and often much more - of smoking or drinking. Yet alcohol use isn't discouraged in any of these movies, and in only three are characters urged not to smoke.
"A lot of media just come right under the radar screen for parents," says Kimberly Thompson, a Harvard University public health researcher and lead author of the study, which appears in the June issue of Pediatrics.
"I don't think you're going to get rid of alcohol, tobacco or violence" in films, Thompson says. "But people just need to be aware of what's there."
In a widely publicised study published last year, Thompson and a colleague reported that all 74 of the titles they reviewed showed at least one act of intentional violence, like a fight or battle. Among those incidents, which involved everything from fists to guns, 125 resulted in injury to a character, and almost half led to a death.
In the latest work, which built on an earlier survey of G-rated films, Thompson and her collaborator, Fumie Yokota, watched 81 animated movies. They included such classics as "Pinocchio," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Dumbo," along with more recent releases like "The Lion King," "Cats Don't Dance" and "Toy Story 2."
Forty-seven percent of the movies had characters who drank alcohol, and 43 percent had characters who smoked.
While violence is frequently associated with a character's moral standing, smoking and drinking are not, Thompson says. "Good" and "bad" figures used alcohol and tobacco to roughly the same degree. A previous look at tobacco use in non-animated movies suggested that smoking was a device used to portray "tough" men and "bad" women.
The average duration of drinking scenes was 42 seconds, but ranged from two seconds to almost three minutes in "Sleeping Beauty." Smoking scenes lasted about two minutes per movie, on average, but ran as long as 10.5 minutes in the 1945 film "The Three Caballeros." Cigar smoking was the most prolonged form of tobacco intake, followed by pipe use and then cigarettes.
None of films depicted illicit drug use, although three did show characters transformed by substances - a traumatic image for young children, experts say - and two showed figures being injected with a drug.
Later films tended to depict less alcohol and tobacco use, the researchers say. Indeed, almost half of the movies reviewed that were released since 1990 had no smoking or drinking at all.
The overall figures are raised in part by the power of preservation through videotape or DVD, through which kids can watch the classic Disney movies again and again. At the time those movies were made, smoking and drinking didn't carry the negative perception they do today.
The movies the researchers watched that were released before the landmark 1964 Surgeon General's report linking smoking to cancer - all released by Walt Disney Studios - had an average of 2 minutes, 15 seconds of tobacco use. By contrast, the movies released after the report - released by several studios, Disney included - averaged only 31 seconds of smoking.
That might reflect a growing cultural bias against tobacco and alcohol use, Thompson says, but if such a motivation was behind the trend, it didn't make it into the screenplay. Only three films had characters who actively discouraged smoking, she says, while none had characters who frowned on drinking.
"Pinocchio," made in 1940, does show the harrowing transformation into donkeys of rowdy boys who smoke and drink and otherwise misbehave, but Thompson says she was looking for explicit, not symbolic, "public health messages." The questionable behaviour "has to be drawn in," she says. "It's not something that's there unless people put it there."
To be sure, says Thompson, many parents, particularly those who smoke and drink, won't find cause for concern in the latest study. And parental behaviour is probably the most important model for young children, says Dr. Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist at the University of Maryland in College Park and chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "But it doesn't preclude the influence of the media and the popular culture," Brody says.
Films and television are rife with the message that people should deal with the blues by drowning them in liquor, Brody says. "Nobody's supposed to feel bad or depressed. We're immediately supposed to self-medicate, and this definitely has an impact on the way our young people see drinking."
Dr. James Sargent, a Dartmouth Medical School pediatrician who has studied tobacco use in Hollywood films, says "focusing on G-rated movies is a bit of a red herring. I don't think that the kinds of depictions kids see are ones that would affect them that much."
On the other hand, Sargent adds, it's clear that teens are sensitive to the smoking habits of stars, and if their favorite actors smoke, they're likely to as well. The film industry in the United States has ignored the mounting evidence that their products affect youth behaviour, Sargent says, and has engaged in a "conspiracy of silence" to avoid dealing with the issue.
The Motion Picture Association of America did not return a call for comment.