Tobacco usage in media

If you’re fond of watching movies or television, a certain disclaimer regarding the use of tobacco may be familiar. Most production houses make it a point to call out the dangers of tobacco usage whenever it’s being shown on screen, and in real life cigarette boxes and packaging of tobacco products are often covered in warnings or graphic images. But we no longer live in a time where information is as neatly packaged as that. The growth of online journalism and social media have been major players in allowing users to access a wide range of narratives that can’t be as easily policed as the big screen, and reach a far larger audience.  But when it comes to covering topics like tobacco use in the media, particularly in a country like Pakistan, reporting ethics become blurry. In a patriarchal society, most of the conversation around smoking is limited to shaming women for picking up the habit, and so, consequently, the debate around tobacco gets limited to gender. This includes magazines or online publications posting pictures of female celebrities smoking and calling them out, or social media users attacking women online for using tobacco. Not only does this reinforce patriarchal norms in society, but it also does something more physically dangerous – it takes up the space in media that should be given to a much more constructive take on health care and regulating tobacco usage. 
This in itself is not new. Pakistani journalism has long relied on sensationalised takes and failed to carve out a niche for constructive, solutions-oriented reporting. The vacuum left by formal journalism is taken over by social media – where the fast pace and bombardment of information leaves little room to debate about ethics or limiting audiences. 
Every year Pakistan sees as many as 160,100 tobacco related deaths, and a large number of users can start as early as pre-teen years. Yet, there is little conversation on the impact this can have on society as a whole, and tobacco usage is generally a topic that is brushed under the rug. What we need is a journalism industry that isn’t afraid to call out social flaws and relies on fact checking and experts to get the right kind of information across. 
The role of the media in empowering change is undeniable, and targeted media campaigns can go a long way in pushing for change within the tobacco sector. Whether it be efforts to change the lax tobacco laws or push for better checks on buying tobacco products, the media must go along with putting out the right kind of information for its audiences. Countering the narrative and marketing strategies set up by many major tobacco companies – which are set to appeal to younger audiences – would mean bringing about a major change within mainstream media. It would require dedicated platforms and focused content geared towards Pakistani youth and their lived experiences in order to create relatable and digestible information that can help them understand the choices they make. Journalism often shares blurred boundaries with social media but for information sharing, that can be particularly helpful – it just needs to be done the right way.
About the writer Anmol Irfan:
Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist who believes in the power of the youth to strive for meaningful change. She has been featured in numerous publications in Pakistan and around the world, covering a variety of topics, including youth challenges and impact. Anmol is an ambassador for Voices Against Tobacco, an initiative by Indus Hospital & Health Network to create a dialogue about the need for meaningful change to improve tobacco control measures in Pakistan.

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