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smokers and nonsmokers

In this study, the authors used focus group interviews to explore how female adolescents in a Canadian high schoolinterpreted and used tobacco imagery in films in their daily lives. Findings from interviews with 20 smokers led themto argue that smoking scenes in films might stimulate youth smoking and that cigarettes are an important symbol inyouth peer groups with explicit social meanings and functions. Their analysis of interviews with 17 nonsmokersrevealed that although the majority noticed smoking in movies, it did not detract from their viewing experience.Although both smokers and nonsmokers were aware that tobacco placements in films served as a form of productpromotion, they typically focused on smoking’s function as a dramatic device for character development rather thanits promotional value. Overall, both groups appeared capable of critical readings of smoking in films but tended notto use these capabilities when viewing movies.
Keywords: tobacco; youth; media; peer culture; Canada
      ver the past decade, there has been growing con-cern that tobacco use in films reinforces positivesmoking-related attitudes and behaviors in youth. Therate of smoking in movies has been high during thisperiod, with the percentage of smokers in films being atleast twice the actual rate in North America (Escamilla,Cradock, & Kawachi, 2000; Glantz, Kacirk, &McCulloch, 2004; Hazan, Lipton, & Glantz, 1994;Stockwell & Glantz, 1997). According to some analysts,this degree of overrepresentation serves to normalizesmoking in the eyes of youth audiences, an especiallynoteworthy point in light of evidence that youth whooverestimate the prevalence of risk behaviors amongpeers are more likely to engage in such behaviors(Perkins & Wechsler, 1996). Moreover, smoking inHollywood movies is rarely associated with negativehealth consequences and instead tends to be linked withglamour, wealth, and many other images and meaningsthat might appeal to young people (Dalton et al., 2002;McIntosh, Bazzini, Smith, & Wayne, 1998).There is also evidence to suggest that exposure totobacco use in movies might encourage youth smoking.More specifically, cross-sectional studies show anassociation between youth with a favorite actor whosmokes and smoking by the same youth (Distefan,Gilpin, Sargent, & Pierce, 1999; Tickle, Sargent, Dalton,
Beach, & Heatherton, 2001), as well as evidence of anincreased prevalence of smoking experimentationamong youth with higher levels of exposure to moviesmoking (Sargent et al., 2001). Contributing to this bodyof correlational research are longitudinal studies thatlink exposure to smoking in films with youth smokinginitiation (Dalton et al., 2003) and having favorite actorswho smoke on-screen with subsequent smoking behav-ior among female adolescents (Distefan, Pierce, &Gilpin, 2004).Although the studies noted above offer importantinsights into the types of smoking-related representa-tions that exist in film (and the potential impacts ofthese portrayals), there remain several areas whereexisting literature on youth, tobacco, and film requireexpansion and enrichment. For example, researchfocused on the impacts of tobacco-related mediaimages is seldom guided by theories offered by thoseworking within the field of communication/mediastudies; that is to say, those studying the impacts oftobacco-related messages could benefit greatly fromattention to frameworks developed by communicationscholars that help describe (a) the ways in which thesocial and cultural backgrounds of viewers are relatedto viewer interpretations of media images, (b) theways in which viewer understandings of images are
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related to the everyday cultural activities of these sameviewers, and (c) the ways in which these images inter-act with other messages that exist in the cultural envi-ronment that viewers inhabit. In the same way, only alimited number of researchers whose work is focusedon youth, media, and smoking have developed studiesaround the idea that interpretations of these smoking-related images are negotiated within peer culturalgroups. More specifically, there is limited research thataims to discern qualitatively how young people under-stand and use the images they are exposed to in theireveryday cultural lives.Although these gaps are a notable concern for thoseworking in the field of research focused on media,tobacco, and youth health, they are equally disconcert-ing for those tasked with devising antismoking initia-tives (e.g., antismoking media messages) aimed atyouth. Stated plainly, health promoters need more infor-mation about the ways in which young people makesense of smoking portrayals, a point with particular sig-nificance when we consider the amount of time andmoney that has been spent on antismoking campaignsover the past decade and that youth smoking hasdecreased only marginally over that period (Physiciansfor a Smoke-Free Canada, 2005).The study reported in this article was designed withthe goal of contributing theoretical, empirical, andpractical insights to this broad area of research andsocial concern. These contributions are offered in thefollowing sections. In the first section, we describeapproaches to studying youth and media that guidedour understanding of (a) how audiences make sense ofthe media messages they are exposed to and (b) howthe tobacco-related symbols and messages that youthencounter are given meaning through and, ultimately,“used” within their cultural and/or peer groups. In thissection, we also offer a brief history of researchfocused on relationships between youth, smoking, andfilms, and consider how the study reported here willcontribute to this body of work. A series of study ques-tions inspired by this review of the literature is thenoutlined. In the second section, we describe themethod used for the study, a qualitative research tech-nique commonly used in communication studiesknown as audience ethnography, which includes mediaviewing and focus group discussion. In the third section,we describe findings from this study, a study focusedon the ways in which tobacco use in Hollywood filmsare understood by female smokers and female non-smokers in a lower middle-class high school inWestern Canada. In the fourth section, the findings are
discussed in relation to previous theoretical and sub-stantive research. We conclude the article with somepractical suggestions for ways in which this researchcan inform the design of antismoking programs aimedat youth and for future research in the area of youth,media, and smoking.
Related Literature
Ethnographic Research: Youth Culture andSmoking
   Our approach to understanding youth audiences andmedia messages was influenced by a previous studyconducted by two of the authors (Wilson & Sparks,1996, 1997, 2001), in which they explored how twogroups of middle-class male youth—youth who sharedan interest in playing and viewing basketball but haddistinct cultural backgrounds (i.e., one group lived inVancouver and was non-Black; the other was in Torontoand was made up of Black youth)—interpreted sneaker(sports shoe) commercials featuring celebrity Black ath-letes (Wilson & Sparks, 1996). The research focusednot only on the ways in which the groups understoodthese commercials but also on the meanings of suchadvertisements (and, in turn, Black athletes and ath-letic apparel) in their daily lives. To aid in the analysis,previous work in the areas of audience research andyouth cultures was drawn on, with Radway’s (1991)interpretive community framework being central to theexploration of youth as media audiences. Radwayadopted the notion of interpretive communities (fol-lowing Fish, 1979) in an attempt to describe the inter-pretive strategies that readers (in her cases, romancenovel readers) bring to a certain genre of text. Sheargued that although texts can be understood in a vari-ety of ways, similar interpretations are produced by“similarly located” readers: readers who share socialbackground characteristics and lifestyles. Radway’swork is especially influential, because she was sensi-tive not only to the ways in which people interpretmedia but also to the ways in which these interpreta-tions, and, most notably, the act of reading itself, arerelated to the social contexts that people inhabit. Forexample, Radway found that romance novel readingwas used by her interviewees as a temporary “declara-tion of independence” (p. 7) from their duties as wivesand mothers.Radway’s (1991) research was influential for the pre-viously noted work on young male audiences (Wilson &Sparks, 1996, 1997, 2001), because it sensitized us to
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the ways in which (a) youthful audience tastes in andinterpretations of media texts might relate to their socialand cultural context; and, more broadly, (b) the mes-sages young people are exposed to (might) influencedecision making, social perceptions, and identity nego-tiations in day-to-day life. Specifically, Radway’s under-standing of the interpretive community was integratedwith youth subcultural theory to examine the role oftelevision commercial messages in the lives of youthcultural groups. In doing so, we drew on the classicwork of subcultural theorist Hebdige (1979), who stud-ied spectacular working class British youth subcultures(e.g., punk rockers and skinheads) in the 1970s. He usedthe term bricolage to describe the process by whichgroups of youth, as a cultural response to feelings ofalienation, actively construct meaning out of unremark-able consumer items (e.g., using safety pins as earrings)with the goal of producing styles that both offended andsymbolically defied authority. Willis (1990) extendedHebdige’s analysis, demonstrating how all youth (notjust those who are members of spectacular subcultures)exercise symbolic creativity in the realm of leisure,negotiating their identities through the use of availableconsumer items (like clothes or certain brands of ciga-rettes) and leisure activities (like shopping or smoking).Three ethnographic studies conducted in Canadaalso affected the design of the present study by offer-ing a foundation from which to think about the sym-bolic meanings of cigarettes in youth cultures. In thefirst study, McCracken (1992) found evidence to sug-gest that smoking behavior and beliefs among youthare highly formalized and ritualized, that youth usesmoking as a means of identity construction at a timewhen they are moving away from the “gravitationalpull” (p. 7) of their parents, and that cigarettes andsmoking give teens access to concrete cultural mean-ings (masculine or feminine image) and pragmaticfunctions (mood management), as well as interper-sonal rituals and displays (sharing a match, blowingsmoke rings). A limitation of McCracken’s work wasthat external sources of these meanings, such as themass media, were not explicitly considered. In thesecond ethnographic study, Connop, King, and Boyce(1999) studied cigarette use by marginalized teensand found that cigarettes served as a powerful sym-bolic tool in the identity formation and group dynam-ics of the participants. The youth used smoking as a“symbolic gesture of resistance to authority as well asa requisite for group membership” (p. 5). The finalstudy was specific to late adolescent female smokers(Seguire & Chalmers, 2000). Researchers found that
many of the participants began smoking to fit in witha social group and used cigarettes as a vehicle to cre-ate (or attempt to create) an image of maturity and toincrease their self-esteem. Smoking was also used bythe young women to rebel against their parents and tocope with uncomfortable feelings such as stress,boredom, anger, and sadness.Influenced by these works (and guided byRadway’s [1991] interpretive community frame-work), we offer an analysis of the understandings thatyouth with a shared habit of viewing popular filmsderive from smoking imagery in movies and the pos-sible ways in which the social location of the viewers(as smokers and nonsmokers and adolescent females)might relate to these interpretations. Embeddedwithin the research is an investigation of how por-trayals of smoking in films inform the youths’ under-standings of the potential roles of cigarettes andsmoking in youth culture.As part of our investigation, we also address a moregeneral question at the root of audience research, whichis, Are youth critical, active viewers, or do they pas-sively accept messages propagated in the mass media?Previous research on youth audiences has been dividedon this issue. For example, Miles (2000) has argued thatyouth have the ability to think critically about the mediathey encounter but only insofar as their immediate,personal experiences give them the tools for criticalassessment. In other words, many young people liveconsumer lifestyles that might constrain their ability todeconstruct media messages, leaving them “potentiallyvulnerable” to the “more subtle ideological messages”(p. 84) in the mass media.Although these issues are centrally relevant whenwe attempt to understand the ways in which youngpeople interpret tobacco imagery in films, there is onlylimited research on the topic. In fact, we could findonly three studies in the area. Two of these were focusgroup–driven studies conducted in New Zealand byMcCool, Cameron, and Petrie (2001, 2003) with 12-and 13-year-olds and 16- and 17-year-olds, respec-tively. Their findings suggest that stereotypical smok-ing imagery in films might play a central role inreinforcing cultural interpretations of smoking inyounger children (McCool et al., 2001), whereas “per-vasive and credible” (McCool et al., 2003, p. 1023)depictions of smoking might reassure older teens whosmoke or are tolerant of smoking that tobacco use issocially acceptable and even normal. Older youthtended to base their interpretations of smoking in filmson their own experiences with cigarettes (McCool
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et al., 2003), whereas younger participants (who hadlower smoking rates than the older youth) tended todraw on observations of family members or friendswho smoke (McCool et al., 2001). Older and youngeryouth jointly recognized that tobacco placements infilms can function simultaneously as a form of promo-tion and as an artistic device, whereas both resisted thesuggestion that smoking imagery in films affected theirdesire to smoke. Significantly, both groups also pre-sented a “predominantly nonchalant response to smok-ing imagery in film” (McCool et al., 2003, p. 1023),and the researchers concluded that it is the “virtuallyunconscious acceptance of tobacco imagery that mayrender it as powerful” (p. 1031).The other key study was performed by a team ofresearchers working with the World Health Organiza-tion (WHO, 2003) who conducted eight focus groupinterviews with male and female adolescents aged 16 to18 in an attempt to determine the impact of smoking inBollywood films1 on the behavior of Indian youth. Akey finding of the study was the importance of films inthe lives of the teens: Some of the youth admitted tobeing influenced by smoking in films because it wasmade to appear fashionable, and some attempted toemulate smoking styles depicted in Bollywood films.
with desirable teenage meanings, such as personal free-dom, social success, and thinness (Greaves, 1996;O’Keefe & Pollay, 1996), little is known about themeaning of cigarettes in the Canadian female youthculture (with the exception of work by Dunn &Johnson, 2001; Moffat & Johnson, 2001; Seguire &Chalmers, 2000) and even less about their interpreta-tions of smoking in films.With these gaps in the literature in mind, we con-structed a set of research questions that guided thestudy reported in this article. These are How do smok-ing depictions in movies inform female adolescents’understandings of tobacco use in their everyday lives?To what extent are female adolescents critical viewersof smoking imagery in films? and Do the interpreta-tions of young females vary between smokers and non-smokers (i.e., do they represent distinct interpretivecommunities)?
   We conducted focus group interviews to explorethe above research questions. As a research techniquethat involves the collection of data through groupinteraction on questions presented by the moderator,the focus group interview can draw out specific ideasand themes not addressed in casual conversation andgenerate more in-depth information than would beobtained by a survey (Morgan, 1996). By encourag-ing the interaction of the participants, this researchtechnique creates a group effect, which allows theresearcher to observe participants as they both ques-tion and explain themselves to each other (Morgan,1996). Such interaction offers insight into the extentof agreement and disagreement among the partici-pants, and allows the researcher to clarify differencesin opinions (Morgan, 2004). With its open and inter-active approach, the focus group is also an excellenttechnique for exploring people’s thoughts and behav-iors in a respectful and noncondescending manner(Morgan & Krueger, 1993). The focus group inter-view is an especially useful methodological tool forgaining insight into viewers’ interpretations of mediaand, as such, is a commonly used research techniquewithin the field of audience studies (Jhally & Lewis,1992; Lewis, 1991; Wilson & Sparks, 1996). Whenfocus groups are used in combination with a media-viewing component, as is the case in this study, thetechnique is sometimes called audience ethnography(Alasuutari, 1999).
Reflections and Research Questions
   Because national culture and identity are likely toaffect the kinds of films young people watch, as wellas their interpretations, it is important that research likethat conducted in New Zealand (McCool et al., 2001;2003) and India (WHO, 2003) be conducted in othernational contexts. Even if one assumes there is a sig-nificant overlap in the movie-viewing habits of youthglobally, it is likely that youth in different national con-texts view popular culture through different culturallenses (McCracken, 1988). In addition, we could notfind any research that focused on potential differencesin the interpretations of smoking in popular films bysmokers and nonsmokers. Although McCool et al. andthe WHO researchers included both smokers and non-smokers, the interpretive similarities and differencesbetween these groups were not examined in any depth.Questions remain about how youth resist or acceptsmoking messages in films. Indeed, understandinghow smokers and nonsmokers accommodate mediadepictions of smoking might facilitate the creation ofmore effective antismoking campaigns.A final note concerns smoking among female ado-lescents: Despite evidence that the tobacco industry tar-gets female youth in Canada by associating cigarettes
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