When A-List celebrities become unpaid spokespeople for the tobacco industry

The fashion and entertainment industries seem stubbornly and dangerously stuck in the past as they fall back on old stereotypes, says Truth Initiative's CEO.

Robin Koval
Robin Koval

Images have influence, whether on TV, the movies, video games, or Instagram. Youth and young adults are uniquely susceptible to social and environmental influences to use tobacco. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in a study, 44% of adolescents who start smoking do so because of the images they’ve seen in the movies.

Smoking is declining dramatically in everyday culture, but paradoxically, the fashion and entertainment industries seem stubbornly and dangerously stuck in the past as they fall back on old stereotypes and portray smoking positively as something glamorous, rebellious, and edgy.

Don’t get us wrong. We fully support model Bella Hadid’s recent Instagram post announcing "I quit" and fellow model Kendall Jenner’s Instagram post avowing "I don’t smoke," that have collectively garnered more than 3.92 million social media engagements in just days. Yet they each paired their anti-smoking captions with glamourous, smoke-filled images. If the statements are true, huge kudos to both of them. But we must admit to wondering whether these beautiful and much admired young women understand the mixed, confusing, and potentially lethal influence of their social musings. Even scarier, do they realize they have unwittingly (at least we hope unwittingly) become the "unpaid spokespersons" for the tobacco industry? Because every one of those likes and shares is a free advertisement for an industry that contributes to 540,000 preventable deaths each year in the U.S.

From pop-culture mega-hits like the video game Grand Theft Auto to Netflix’s "Stranger Things," smoking imagery is still very much a part of the entertainment landscape, and tobacco companies are reaping the benefits. Eleven of the 12 shows most nominated for Emmys all regularly contain smoking within their content. (Thank you, "Blackish," for resisting the trend). As a result of social media, fans, and followers (including people who may not even identify as smokers—like Kendall) multiply the negative impact exponentially with every social like and share of posts including tobacco, which opens the door to the re-glamorization and re-normalization of smoking.

The truth is smoking isn’t "cool" again. That’s why less than 6% of teens are smoking and both youth and young adult smoking rates have seen some of the most dramatic declines in years between 2011 and 2016. It’s ironic that the people who get so much "cred" for being fashion trendsetters are woefully behind the times on this issue.

We’re so close to the finish line of ending smoking for good in our country. If Kendall and Bella really want to be inspirational icons, we challenge them and everyone to take back their power that’s been hijacked by the tobacco industry. Why not use all that influence and creativity to make a positive change and be part of the movement to be the generation to end smoking for good. That would be an "Insta-worthy" moment for sure.

We challenge everyone, whether they’re a celebrity or not, to think about the images they share and the messages that those images portray. Move beyond the tired, vapid stereotypes, like putting a cigarette in someone’s mouth or hand when you want to show someone is cool, or edgy, and instead try something different. It will make an impact, and ultimately it could save a life.

Robin Koval is the CEO and president of Truth Initiative, the national public health organization dedicated to achieving a culture where all youth and young adults reject tobacco.

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